How many pairs of breeding White Storks are there in South Africa in 2024?

The mountains in the background to this pair of breeding White Storks look like they could easily be in Europe. But these are the mountains behind Paarl in the Western Cape, South Africa, and the nest is at the Tygerberg Zoo!!! BirdPix record 52545

What does this collection of countries in the map below have in common?

This is a map of countries with breeding White Storks

They are countries with breeding White Storks! These are the countries in which the 2024 edition of the International White Stork Census is taking place. South Africa is the only country in the southern hemisphere with breeding White Storks. Most people don’t realize that the breeding range extends southwards across the Mediterranean Sea to northern Africa. Here is a nest in Morocco:

breeding White Storks, Marrakesh, Morocco, Jean Ramsay
Breeding White Storks in Marrakesh, Morocco. Photo by Jean Ramsay

The BDI has been given the task of finding out how many pairs of breeding White Storks there are in South Africa, currently. For now, the focus is on nests, rather than on birds!

The International White Stork Census takes place every 10 years. This year’s is the eighth. The number that South Africa submitted to the seventh census in 2014 was zero. We already know that that was wrong. In 2004, the number of pairs of breeding White Storks was 10.

We need your help to get the number we submit this year as close to the truth as possible!

… a two-paragraph detour!!

You are driving through the Free State. You stop at a bridge to watch the South African Cliff Swallows breeding. There are a few Barn Swallows among them. They are looking distinctly “blue”. They are in breeding plumage. This is the point at which you have to think the unthinkable, and do the craziest thing you have ever done in your life. Look for Barn Swallow nests in the Free State. This is not an outrageous idea, because birders in Argentina discovered Barn Swallows breeding there. They are normally visitors from North America.

Phil Whittington, ornithologist at the East London Museum, was a PhD student doing penguin fieldwork on Dyer Island. He got up one night for a pee, and heard a call he had only ever heard before as a recording. Leach’s Storm Petrel. He tracked down the source of the call; to his amazement, it was coming from inside a dry stone wall. He woke up Bruce Dyer at 02h00: “Bruce, I know this sounds insane, but there is a Leach’s Storm Petrel inside the wall out there, and I think it might be breeding.” Phil convinced Bruce to do the stupidest thing imaginable, and together they searched inside the wall for evidence of breeding. They were successful. There had been several other ornithologists who had had similar opportunities to be first to find Leach’s Storm Petrel, a migrant from the northern hemisphere, breeding in the southern hemisphere. In South Africa, New Zealand and near Antarctica. None had the courage to think the unthinkable!

… and getting back on the White Stork highway

So, on 18 November 1940, Austin Roberts (the first edition of the bird book now named after him in was also published that year) was driving around the Oudtshoorn district, when what he saw a nest made of sticks at the top of a dead eucalypt. He had the courage to believe what he was seeing. Something that left him totally gobsmacked. A White Stork nest with three chicks. He camped there for three nights. The farmer told him the storks were already breeding when he moved to the farm in 1933. The nest was close to the road between Oudtshoorn and Calitzdorp. Austin Roberts was surely not the first knowledgeable person to drive past the nest, but he had the courage to think the unthinkable. The storks bred again in 1941, but the nest had grown larger than the dead tree could support, and the three chicks died in the nest crash. This pair was not recorded breeding again.

The first nest in South Africa of a breeding White Stork, at the top of a dead blue gum tree on a farm near Oudtshoorn. Photo taken by G van Son, 18 November 1940. This photograph and the two below were originally published in the August 1941 edition of Ostrich in a paper written by Dr Austin Roberts and titled “The White Stork in South Africa
Dr Austin Roberts’s own description of the three photos in his paper in Ostrich in August 1941

It was 21 years before the next White Stork nest was found, on 29 November 1961, on a farm in the area immediately south of Bredasdorp. Quickly, nests came to light on other farms in the neighbourhood. The maximum number of active nests was four. It is this little population that has persisted the longest. We need to find out if there are still nests in this area in 2024.

The next nest was found by a schoolboy travelling by overnight train from Cape Town to Oudtshoorn. He woke up on 1 January 1966 to see a White Stork nest out the window. He reported it, but couldn’t remember where the train was when he saw it. Detective work with the stationmasters between Worcester and Mossel Bay took less than a day. The stationmaster at Riversdale spoke to engine drivers who quickly located the nest on a farm between Mossel Bay and Albertinia. This pair nested until 1976.

It was noted that usually all four or five eggs in the nests in the Bredasdorp district hatched, but that there was only space for three grown chicks at fledging time. The excess chicks were brought to Cape Town where they were hand-raised. The plan was to keep them at the old Tygerberg Zoo for a few years before they were released. Here are a few paragraphs that Professor Gerry Broekhuysen wrote in the May 1975 edition of the Cape Bird Club Newsletter.

“For the past few years White Storks, which were originally taken as young from nests in the Bredasdorp District, have been kept in an enclosed camp at the Tygerberg Zoo. They have been kept there to enable me to study and observe their behaviour and it is also hoped that when they have become adult (this is in Europe after four to five years) some of them would perhaps start to breed.

“Great was our excitement when at the end of last year [1974] some wild storks started to spend time in the zoo and eventually joined the captive ones at times. Two of these eventually took food at feeding times in the afternoon. Then in January two wild storks started to build a nest on top of one of the bird cages only a short distance from the stork enclosure. Before the nest was completed, however, it was blown off by a gale force wind. In the beginning of February the two birds started to build a new nest, this time in the corner and on top of the wire fence of the lion cage. Both birds built and eventually it was a great bulky structure.

Who would have thought that this would happen?

“The birds are not timid at all and remain on the nest while visitors look at the lions.”

Gerry Broekhuysen was writing near the end of March, and said that these two birds were still at the nest, and had not migrated north with the migrant storks. “Are they going to breed in our spring as the birds in Bredasdorp do?” Sadly, within a month, on 16 April 1975, he passed away, and no information whatsoever about what happened at the zoo over the next few years has been kept for us.

Breeding White Storks on the top of the Patas Monkey cage, Tygerberg Zoo. Doeter Oschadleus
White Stork nest on top of the Patas Monkeys’ cage at the Tygerberg Zoo on 27 October 2012. BirdPix record 309, submitted by Dieter Oschadleus

Apart from the fact that there were at least 18 of them, there is no record of what happened to the captive-reared White Storks at Tygerberg Zoo, but it does seem certain that breeding there was initiated by wild storks.

Ciconia ciconia at Tygerberg Zoo
White Storks at their nest on top of a cage at the Tygerberg Zoo, on 26 July 2003. BirdPix record 52545

In December 2000, ornithologists from the Vogelwarte Radolfzell in Germany attached satellite tracking devices to five White Stork fledglings, four at Tygerberg Zoo and one near Bredasdorp. All five juvenile storks survived the hazardous first few weeks out the nest, and all of them travelled beyond South Africa before they died. Saturn survived the longest, close to a year, and the map below shows the track taken:

The track of a young White Stork
Satellite track of a young White Stork called Saturn. This White Stork had grown up in a nest which was in the enclosure at Tygerberg Zoo that housed the giant tortoise. The tracking device had been attached to Saturn on 6 December 2000.

That’s a bit of history!

Now we need to jump back to 2024. Please search diligently for breeding White Storks this year. If you chat to farmers, please ask them if they know of any nests. We need to track them down, so that we can provide reliable information to the 2024 edition of the International White Stork Census. Remember, right now it is nests that we are interested in (not birds or even flocks of birds, at least for now). Please also report any nests known to have been occupied in the last decade or so.

Please contact Les Underhill (les@thebdi.org) with whatever information you find. (Ideally, we hope that the report will contain place, coordinates, contact details of landowner, and a few photos!)

Les Underhill
Les Underhill
Prof Les Underhill has been Director of the Animal Demography Unit (ADU) at the University of Cape Town since it started in 1991. Although citizen science in biology is Les’s passion, his academic background is in mathematical statistics. He was awarded his PhD in abstract multivariate analyses in 1973 at UCT and what he likes to say about his PhD is that he solved a problem that no one has ever had. He soon grasped that this was not the field to which he wanted to devote his life, so he retrained himself as an applied statistician, solving real-world problems.