Storks breeding in Britain

26 May 2020

Interview with 

Lucy Groves, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust

WHITE-STORKS

White storks

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Recently, white storks have become parents for the first time in six hundred years. They are large, migratory birds and we know they used to spend warmer months in Britain because old bones have been found and there’s a cultural legacy in various place names in the south of England. But thanks to being large and delicious, and coupled with the loss of their wetland habitats, they stopped seeing the UK as home and have steadfastly refused to breed here since the year 1416. The birth of the chicks has come about thanks to the White Stork Project, a partnership between landowners and conservationists. More than 150 rehabilitated and captive-bred white storks have been brought to the south of England in recent years to kick start the programme. Eva Higginbotham spoke to the project’s Lucy Groves...

Lucy - Most of the birds that came to us in 2016 were young birds that had been injured, so they're only just reaching sexual maturity, which is why we haven't really had much luck with them up until now. We did have a pair who attempted to breed last year; they had three eggs, which failed to hatch, and the female was just under four years old, so we think possibly with her those were just infertile eggs because of her age. And she and her partner from last year are the pair that have managed to hatch three chicks this year. Which is fantastic.

Eva - Fantastic, so it's three chicks that have hatched - when did that happen?

Lucy - In that first nest... so we've got three nests, and only two of them ended up having eggs in. This pair, they hatched their eggs on the 6th of May, so they're only just coming up for two weeks old. And we went out with our drone on Monday to check the second nest, and I can now confirm that we've actually got another three chicks in the second nest! So we've got two separate nests with chicks in, which is really exciting.

Eva - Super exciting. Fantastic. So what's the life like for a newly-hatched stork chick?

Lucy - The parents are really, really attentive. It's 33 days' incubation period, so they're really good, they take it in turns, they both work equally hard to make sure that those eggs stay safe, and when the chicks hatch as well. So they're being brooded by the parents and they are being sat on, kept nice and warm; although with the sunny weather that we've had today, I've actually noticed that the adults are standing and holding their wings out to shelter them from the blazing sun. So they're doing a really good job. And it takes 60 days for them to fledge, it's quite a long period; and adults will be going off foraging - they eat mainly insects, but they will also take small mammals, they'll take fish, things like that, but this time of the year when all the bugs and that are hatching out it's mainly the insects - and the adults will actually regurgitate the food back onto the nest. Unlike other birds that get the food regurgitated straight into the chick's mouth, it's regurgitated onto the nest and the chicks help themselves to it.

Eva - So what might this success mean for conservation efforts around the UK, in terms of birds?

Lucy - One of the things that's really interesting with the white stork project is that these birds are so charismatic; they're really large, they're beautiful birds. And we're using them not just to reintroduce a missing species, but to engage people, to reconnect people with nature, and get people talking about habitats and ecosystems and how things work. And what we're hoping is that it will drive awareness and pro-conservation behaviour change, and just wake people up to the issues that are out there. But also, in and around these areas where we're releasing these storks, we're talking to local landowners, we're looking at ways that we can improve the habitats, we're looking at the ways that perhaps using less pesticides will have great impact on the health of the storks, but also other species as well. So we're hoping it will have a knock-on effect, a positive knock-on effect, for other species that may need our help. Conservation is one of those things; it's quite difficult to get funding for 'little brown jobs', as they're normally called: small birds, small animals that are really, really important in ecosystems, but they're not quite as charismatic. So the white stork, we're hoping, can be a flagship species to drive these really important conversations and get people looking at the way that they're managing the land, not just for the storks, but for everything else as well.

For more on the history of white storks in the UK, listen to our interview with conservation biologist Alexander Lees.

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