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"SOS Stork" takes important steps to prevent birds' deaths

Storks suffer high mortality rates during their seasonal migrations (picture: Dr. Holger Schulz)

A project to track storks on their migratory journey has been able to pinpoint a series of hazards that explain why so many of the birds never return.

This week, after a two-month blackout, the staff of SOS Stork began receiving satellite transmissions again from the surviving storks. Only 12 of the 25 that were followed from Switzerland to their winter home in Africa are still alive.

At present, five are in Spain, two in Portugal, three in Mauritania, and one each in Mali and Morocco.

But the 13 that died might not have lost their lives in vain. Thanks to the storks' tiny, solar-powered transmitters, Project SOS Stork's ground teams were able to identify the chief dangers facing them as they fly south each year.

The main risks are electricity pylons, on which hundreds of the rare birds lose their lives each season. Open water towers in France were found to be another death trap.

Thirteen birds were knocked off the rim of one tower and into the water, as a flock of about 50 storks took flight. Thanks to the transmitters, a team was able to save seven of them from drowning.

SOS Stork has since had wire fencing placed around the rim of that tower, to keep the migrating birds from perching there. If this trial solution proves successful, other water towers in the region may be fenced in the same way.

The researchers also learned that in areas near Lerida in northern Spain and Seville in the south, great numbers of birds are being killed annually by contact with middle-voltage electric wires.

More than 130 dead storks were found at the foot of electric pylons near a garbage dump where they feed, 20 kilometers southeast of Seville.

Peter Enggist, director of the Swiss Society for the White Stork and the driving force SOS Stork, is well on his way to solving these problems in Spain.

Together with Olivier Biber of the government's environment agency, Enggist is trying to persuade Spanish officials to mount plastic covers over the pylon cross-pieces where the storks rest, using materials donated by Electricité de France.

"The solutions are easy and not expensive," says Enggist. "We just have to know where they are needed and then push people to implement them."

Holger Schulz, the German ornithologist who led the four ground teams last autumn, says that their work went "unbelievably well". Telemetric data transmitted to them by biologist Adrian Aebischer enabled the teams to follow hundreds of storks as far as Gibraltar.

Schulz and his colleagues gained important new information about the storks' migratory routes, eating and resting patterns, and flight behaviour.

SOS Stork is eager to send Schulz and his ground teams out further afield in 2001. Besides tracking another 25 young storks to Gibraltar and checking their findings of 2000, they would travel on with the birds to their winter resting places in north-western Africa.

The second operation will therefore cost more that the first -- at least SFr800,000, says Enggist. But he is hopeful that the money can be raised.

Last year, there was strong public support for SOS Stork. Its web site, which made it possible to follow the storks' progress, received half a million hits in just four weeks.

One man wrote that he checked on the birds every morning before drinking his coffee; another sent his Social Security check to support the ground teams' work.

Enggist is hoping to persuade the Japanese car-maker, Nissan, to provide the ground teams with vans again.

Swiss Storks can use every penny it gets. At present, 90 per cent of the young storks born in Switzerland each year die before they can return here to breed.

Unless the causes of their deaths are identified and eliminated, SOS Stork fears the birds will become extinct.

by Kim Hayes


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