White Stork

Bulgaria’s beloved bird

The white stork is one of the best known and loved birds in Bulgaria and in the world. It breeds mainly in Europe but in North Africa, the Middle East and in Central Asia too. People love it for its white plumage, for the fact that each winter it flies off to the holy lands of both Christians and Muslims, for being a herald to spring, and last but not least – because its prey are animals that people don’t love too much: frogs, snakes, locusts and rodents.

One of the busiest flyways of the white stork on its way to Africa and back to Europe passes through Bulgaria. Nearly 80 per cent of all white storks on the planet fly through the country, mostly in the area of the city of Burgas – about 260 000 every autumn! In August huge flocks of storks can be seen all along the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. The white stork is a soaring bird – it uses the warm thermals to help it along its long flight.

© Nikolay Petkov
© D. Gradinarov/White Stork

A big bird with a red beak

The white stork is a big bird with a body length of 95–110 cm and a large wingspan – 180–218 centimetres. Despite its big size, it is relatively light, weighing between 2 and 4.5 kilos. Everybody can recognize this long-legged bird, with a long neck and a long, pointed beak, with white plumage and black flight feathers. On its chest the white stork has longer, fluffy feathers that create a ruff of sorts; some individuals use it in their courting rituals. Males are larger than females. In adult birds the beak and legs are bright red, and in the young they are brown-reddish. In flight the white stork stretches out its neck and legs – an important clue to distinguish it from flying herons. The migration flocks of storks are disorganized.

© D. Gradinarov/White Stork

A diverse diet

The staple diet of the white stork consists of insects (mostly beetles, grasshoppers, crickets), earth worms, snakes and other reptiles, amphibians (frogs in particular), small mammals (mice, voles and other rodents). It also eats bird eggs, young birds, fish, mollusks, crustaceans and scorpions. By attacking rodents, locusts and other insects it has become the farmers’ favorite, as it contributes to a better harvest. The white stork searches for prey during the day; usually it swallows its prey whole.
© D. Gradinarov/White Stork

A welcomed neighbour

The white stork nests in human settlements across Bulgaria with the exception of arid areas, densely forested areas and rugged terrains above 1270 m above sea level. It searches for food near to rivers, water bodies, fields and meadows.

White storks gather in their highest numbers and with highest density (29–61 pairs per 100 sq. km) in the plains around Sofia and Samokov, along the valley of Maritsa River and the surrounding hills with plenty of reservoirs, along the lower course of the rivers Iskar, Struma, Tundzha, at several sites along the Danube River and around the Burgas Lakes. Most occupied nests (4841, or 83 per cent) are located between 0 and 400 m above sea level.

The species is almost absent from the region of Dobrudzha despite the region’s suitable altitude – probably due to the lack of water bodies and sufficient food resources.

The 7th international white stork count (2014–2015) revealed an increase in the species’ population in Bulgaria compared to the previous count from ten years earlier. The number of breeding pairs has risen with 1007 (21 per cent). The data reveal significant regional differences too. In the region of Pleven the white stork is in decrease; in most regions in Northern Bulgaria its numbers are stable; and in South Bulgaria, particularly in the regions of Plovdiv, Haskovo, Sofia, Kardzhali and Blagoevgrad the number of breeding pairs has increased significantly. According to the last count there are 5825 pairs in Bulgaria currently.

© D. Gradinarov/White Stork

The family life of our white neighbour

As most big birds white storks form lifelong pairs. However, in contrast to swans and eagles that do not separate throughout the year, white storks are more liberal. After they raise their chicks, the male and female separate; one could spend the winter in Kenya, the other – in Sudan: they do not need to be together, as they do not breed there. In spring they meet again at the nest. The male comes first and a few days later the female arrives too

© Sv. Spasov/White stork

The stork’s huge home

The white stork’s nest is huge and the pair does repairs every year – not only in spring but throughout the breeding season. The nest is built from branches – long, thicker ones for the base, and smaller ones that are woven into the structure. The birds then bring dry grass, and sometimes – old rags and paper too.

Several species of birds use the storks’ nest as a nesting site too. Among them are the house, Spanish and tree sparrows, and the collared dove.

The female white stork lays 2–4 eggs in the period April–June. The pair breeds once a year. Incubation starts immediately after the female lays her first egg so the young do not hatch simultaneously.

The white stork has a conservation priority status and it is protected in Bulgaria as well as in the other countries in its area of distribution.

The stork’s huge home

The white stork’s nest is huge and the pair does repairs every year – not only in spring but throughout the breeding season. The nest is built from branches – long, thicker ones for the base, and smaller ones that are woven into the structure. The birds then bring dry grass, and sometimes – old rags and paper too.

Several species of birds use the storks’ nest as a nesting site too. Among them are the house, Spanish and tree sparrows, and the collared dove.

The female white stork lays 2–4 eggs in the period April–June. The pair breeds once a year. Incubation starts immediately after the female lays her first egg so the young do not hatch simultaneously.

The white stork has a conservation priority status and it is protected in Bulgaria as well as in the other countries in its area of distribution.

© Sv. Spasov/White stork

Wetlands – important sites for the white stork

The protection and restoration of wetlands in Bulgaria is of key importance for the conservation of the white stork, as well as for increasing its numbers. The availability of enough feeding sites of proper quality guarantees the presence of the species and the good state of its population. The white stork’s preferred feeding grounds are rivers, lakes, ponds, and wet meadows and marshy areas in particular.

Action against dangerous nests

For decades scientists have been documenting a tendency among white storks to move their nests from roofs and trees to electricity pylons and poles. The last count (2014–2015) revealed that the majority of nests of the species are on electricity pylons. The nests can weigh over 50 kilos and some parts of them can touch the power lines, leading to short circuits during rain and exposing the nest to the risk of burning down. Such dangerous nests need to be saved by moving them onto man-made platforms. The best period for installing the platforms is in the autumn. The installation is coordinated with electricity providers in the area, as the power needs to be shut down for the operation. The BSPB has a long-standing partnership with electricity providers in Bulgaria and one of the key joint operations is precisely the protection of dangerous stork nests.

Fighting poachers

Unfortunately, even today we still find white storks that are shot dead. The last case dates from 2020, when we found the body of a white stork shot by poachers in the town of Hadzhidimovo.

Regular monitoring

Since its foundation the BSPB works for the conservation of the white stork in Bulgaria. Our teams carry out regular monitoring of the nesting pairs across the country, and they keep record of the nesting success of the species. The BSPB is the national coordinator for the international counts of the white stork that take place every 10 years. The next count will take place in 2024–2025. Hundreds of locals also participate in the counts by sharing important details about their white neighbours.

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