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It's a joyful sight to see them fly up in the heavens with their characteristically slow but regular wingbeat. Who doesn’t like to watch them come in to land or take off from their reoccupied homes atop churches, trees, chimney pots, lamp posts and electricity poles, in neighbourly unison with the villagers nearby. After the winter chill, egg-laying soon follows.

What is then essential for the well-being of these soulful birds are shallow water grounds and farmland areas providing food and vegetation. The Tisza Lake and the Hortobágyi National Park, 100-150 kilometres east of Budapest, are perfect breeding grounds and resource providers. Should bird-watching be of interest, I highly recommend a visit there and at Bugyi (Kiskunsagi National Park), 40 kilometres south of the city.

The regular white storks, (Ciconia ciconia) are larger than average birds and considered to be fairly strong. Their plumage is mainly white with black wing feathers. Adults have long red legs and long pointed red beaks. They can measure up to 100 to 115 centimetres from beak to tail and 155 to 215 centimetres with wingspan, enabling them to fly at impressive heights.

The nests themselves are very durable, although they offer minimal shelter. They can withstand the ravages of strong wind, rain and sunlight, and can last, with occasional repair work, for several years. They range from 1 to 2 metres deep, 1 to 1.5 metres in diameter and anything from 60 to 200 kilogrammes, and are frequently inhabited year after year.

The female usually lays a batch of four eggs that hatch some 33 days later. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs and feeding the chicks, which need rearing for some two months before they in turn fly for the first time.

Seldom are these birds and nests obstructed by humans, due to a remarkable bond between us and them. In Europe, storks are widely viewed as sacred. Legend depicts them in very touching ways, as they represent parental love, family welfare and traditionalism, as well as bringing good fortune to the neighbourhoods wherever they go.

Should a stork build a nest on top of your house, this is expected to bring happiness and fortune. The fairytales continue as these "giving" birds are probably best known for carrying babies in their beaks out of swamps and marshes in baskets or rags to awaiting families. Another myth says that if a nubile girl sees a stork flying overhead early in spring before anyone else does, her wedding is sure to follow.

If these birds get into trouble, it’s considered a duty to nurse them back to health. This works well as storks can be reasonably domesticated, and sometimes live in the yards of their rescuers until healed. In turn, the carnivorous storks pay for their keep by controlling insects, bugs, beetles, locusts and mice.

The adult white stork's main sound is a noisy bill-clattering, like distant machine-gun fire. This is produced by rapidly opening and closing their long beaks, giving a knocking sound each time.

Storks fly with necks stretched forward and long legs extended well beyond the end of their short tails. They walk at a slow and steady pace with neck up-stretched. In contrast, they hunch their heads between shoulders when resting. The sexes are identical in appearance but the males are slightly larger on average.

When in flight, storks really can reach monumental heights, as often seen in the silent splendour of the vast, open Puszta and Alföld plains of central and southern Hungary, before heading southwards to escape our winter.

The oldest known wild stork lived for 39 years after being ringed and monitored in Switzerland. Captive birds can live up to 35 years. Regrettably a common cause of death to storks and other birds relates to human errors due to electrocution and general litter. More action and awareness is required to prevent such happenings.

Common white storks make their way southwards from their breeding grounds in Europe in autumn. They travel via Spain or Turkey to avoid a trip over the Mediterranean Sea. Their destination is anywhere within the African savannah down to the Cape Province of South Africa. They rely on uplifts from air thermals to cover the vast distance between the two continents.

On route, the dangers are dehydration, hunger and sometimes bullets. An average journey takes about 50 days. When they return to European pastures in spring, they can be sure of an appreciative welcome.


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