Landfill Magic - Europe's Fabled White Stork Is Flourishing in Some Unlikely Places on the Iberian Peninsula

Article excerpt

EVERY THURSDAY, you can find Jose Aguirre bobbing and weaving his mud- spattered green van through a grimy gauntlet of potholes, trash hunks and roiling trucks.

Dressed in khakis, a green sweatshirt and sporting short-cropped dark brown hair, Aguirre looks like he could drive military vehicles. Instead, the Complutense University of Madrid biologist studies white storks living around Spain's growing capital. Some days he's sloshing across pastures, others he's in the suburbs. Today, he's surrounded by trash.

"This part of Madrid Province is not the prettiest place in the world, but the storks love it," saysthe 28-year-old scientist, parking in the heart of Madrid's largest dump, the Las Dehesas landfill. Apparently immune to fermenting garbage fumes, he peers through a spotting scope at 150 white, black-winged birds that dot plastic-bag-spangled trash mounds. Some of the three-foot-tall birds reach over smaller black- headed gulls, thrusting their sharp, red bills at meat scraps. But most, apparently satiated, stand like huge lawn ornaments, ignoring the smoky comings and goings of bulldozers and dump trucks.

"One of the main reasons for the increase of storks in Madrid Province is rubbish dumps," says Aguirre, scribbling down the band numbers he spies on the lounging birds' legs.

Trash eaters? Aren't storks supposed to be stately creatures, delivering bundled babies and bringing good fortune? The creatures of myth, it turns out, bear very little resemblance to the white storks of reality. And the fortunes of the real storks have lately traced a twisting path because of pollution, habitat loss, drought--and rubbish. Spain is both a major migration stop and breeding hub for storks, and therefore provides a perfect setting for unweaving the tangled tale of the stork. And Madrid's trash dump provides an excellent, if unlikely, stage for this drama.

The story begins before humanity and garbage. Fossils reveal that white storks appeared during the Miocene Epoch, between 24 and 5 million years ago. The leggy birds stalked open, grassy areas and wetlands teeming with insects, frogs, fish, rodents and other small animals. In more recent millennia, stork-feeding acreage grew as early Europeans cut their forests, creating fields and rough, oak-studded pastures called dehesas. As settlements peppered the landscape, rooftops-- particularly church steeples and other high points--attracted nesting storks seeking safety from terrestrial predators.

Villagers protected the attractive, pest-eating birds that piled their bulky stick nests atop their rooftops, weaving them into lore and legend. In Scandinavian, Dutch and German stories, storks brought babies upon their spring arrival. The white stork became Lithuania's national bird and Spanish and Ukrainian proverbs state that it brings good luck. Far south, African villagers call them "grasshopper birds" because large wintering flocks follow locust migrations through the Sahara's southern fringes.

"The white stork is known to everyone in Europe, to adults and to children," says Juan Carlos Atienza, who studies stork conservation issues at the Madrid-based Spanish Society of Ornithology (SEO/BirdLife). "It nests on rooftops. As such, it's a very charismatic bird--a very special bird." White storks also nest along North Africa's coast and into Asia as far east as Uzbekistan. Some pairs breed in South Africa, where far more winter. All told, white storks are found in almost 80 countries. While 18 other stork species live on all continents except Antarctica, only one other--Africa's Abdim's stork-- regularly nests on people's homes.

It wasn't long ago that people feared they would lose their neighborhood storks. The stately birds took a dive during the twentieth century as agriculture changed, wetlands were drained and towns sprawled into cities. The tailspin accelerated after World War II and hit Western Europe the hardest. …