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White storks and electrical installations in Spain: a solution after ten years

* Author: Javier Goitia *

The traditional Spanish riddle “Mis patas rojas (My legs are red), mi pico largo (my beak is long) y hago mi casa (and I make my nest) en el campanario (in the bell-tower)” began to lose its relevance and popularity on school playgrounds in the 1960s, as thousands of country people left their towns to move to the cities and the electricity distribution lines began to cross fields and wastelands.

In those days, not only was there a radical change in the countryside. In response to so many changes, the population of storks began to decline so fast that in 1984 they were thought to be in danger of going extinct.

Surprisingly, when people were getting ready for their funerals, the species suddenly jolted into action and started to thrive. Very soon, the young couples discovered a new type of “substratum” that had not been available to their parents: electricity pylons and substations! These installations seemed to have been designed specially to hold the first nests of the clumsy new couples.

Not only that, but the existence of all of these new ‘available homes’, another process derived from social progress, was another stroke of luck for the species: millions of homes stopped burning their rubbish on a daily basis. In every county and every valley, hundreds of dumps were opened. They began to fill up with continuous loads of ‘tasty’ morsels for storks.

This abundance of food was another reason why another perhaps even better-known saying fell into disuse around about the same time:  “Por San Blas, la cigüeña verás y, si no la vieres, año de nieves” (On the Feast of St. Blaise, you’ll see the stork. If you don’t, it’ll be a snowy year).  In just eight or ten years, these two circumstances combined multiplied the contingent of storks by three or four and they were soon left out of the list of endangered species.

But in this world balance is a delicate thing and happiness doesn’t tend to last for long. By the mid-nineties, the storks had become a major problem for electricity companies and for the various rural settlements that were left in the dark every time the numerous settlers or their restless chicks moved a twig in their nests.

This was a new problem and the infinite number of technical solutions that were implemented proved to be dangerous for the birds and for our employees, when not entirely futile.  At Iberdrola, we decided to support the idea of two professors from Zamora, Pedro and Ángel, who only needed a scenario where they could carry out their tests on a real scale. They had verified that small birds were single-minded in following their chicks if someone stole them from the nest.  Not only did the parents abandon their nest; they completely forgot about it and their only goal was to finish bringing up their chicks.

It took almost ten years to put the finishing touches to a wonderful project in our “MASVERDE” series, to which we gave the rather pompous-sounding name of “White stork pilot project”. An initiative like this one has to be carried out by people that are highly motivated and very confident in their idea. The legal and administrative problems, the health scares (does anyone remember bird ‘flu?), the logistics, the permits to interrupt the service, the environmental permits to handle and band the animals…there was an infinite number of obstacles to be overcome.

We started in Zamora, choosing a single nest to find out when they laid their eggs and when the baby stork raised its neck for the first them. Then we created a complicated structure to build a new nest and move it further and further away from the old one.

The excitement of our earliest success stories was increased in Extremadura, where we moved around a hundred nests.  We soon replaced the original structure with a proprietary nest and post design, which we called “kabi” and then immediately asked the manufacturer to make another several-storey version, which we called the “hotel”.

We selected the specimens, controlled their growth, applied for permits to build “kabis” and “hotels”, and eagerly waited for the days at the end of May when we quickly and carefully went up to the nests, took the biometric measurements and samples from the chicks. The procedure always worked, although we used to stay watching until nightfall in case any birds refused to cooperate.

Not only did the evicted parents look after their chicks with absolute devotion; they kept coming back to the “kabi” or “hotel” we had provided, year after year.  The highlight was in 2008, when we saw that a chick that had hatched in one of our installations and was now a fine three-year old specimen, brought home a beautiful stork to nest to the same place.

Author: Javier Goitia
Bio: Bio: I’m a Technical Public Works Engineer and Geographer and I think I’m among the most senior qualified employees at Iberdrola. I’ve worked in various different areas: from planning to technical design and from the operation of nuclear and thermal power plants to territorial planning and the environment.

One Comment

  1. Catherine Diamond

    Dear Javier,
    Thanks for this wonderful project and the report about it. I always enjoy the storks in Spain, both on church towers and in the countryside of Andalusia. Have you ever found unusual things inside a stork’s nest? Thanks, Catherine

    20 January, 2014 a 10:45

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