Looking to the storks, hoping luck takes wing

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

April 21, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Staff Writer

ALTLANDSBERG, Germany -- The stork rises stiffly in its nest atop the ancient tower and stretches its wings like an actor in a road show shrugging off the dust of travel.

The stork and its mate are great travelers, and they've come back from Africa with the spring to this very old farm village just outside Berlin. Storks have returned here in the springtime for as long as anyone can remember, for at least a century and perhaps since the town was founded nearly 700 years ago.

They nest on the Storchenturm, the stork tower at the Strausberger Gate, a portal in the town wall that was built in 1350.

The stork up there now seems a bit of a ham, bowing and preening, stiff-legged and formal with its white head and breast and black wing feathers. People stop on the cobbled road below to watch and take pictures.

But, no, the stork is not performing, says Ursula Klinkert, the small, bright, birdlike woman who is the town's archivist.

"What's underneath doesn't interest them," she says. "They're only afraid of what comes from above."

That sounds like a metaphor for a fair number of middle-level bureaucrats in the 20th century. But storks and Altlandsberg have survived together more or less intact through generations of human folly.

The storks bring luck to the town, Mrs. Klinkert says. She's 68 and has lived about 35 feet below the nest for 40 years, in a snug house built into the base of the Storchenturm.

The town can use all the luck it can get.

Like all of former Communist East Germany, Altlandsberg has lots of problems and few resources. The collective farm that was the town's main employer has been privatized, and nothing much has replaced it. Mrs. Klinkert says people have grown a bit lazy since their conversion to capitalism following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany.

"Dreimal F" -- three times F -- predominates now. Mrs. Klinkert counts on her fingers: "feierabends, felzlatschen und fernsehen," which roughly translates to closing shop, putting on your felt slippers and watching television.

On a Sunday afternoon in spring there's not really much more to do in Altlandsberg but look at the storks or walk along the old wall and talk about history. The energetic Mrs. Klinkert loves to do both.

"Altlandsberg is older than Berlin," she says.

Frederick Wilhelm I, a Prussian king renowned for his frugality, lived here as a boy in a castle that has completely vanished now except for a few pillars in a trash dump and a palace park grown wild.

Storks have a great reputation for fidelity and marital harmony, Mrs. Klinkert says. The male is a grand cavalier, a gentleman who never returns to the nest without some small present for his mate.

But Andreas Ochs, a veterinarian who attends the storks at the Berlin Zoo, says it's very hard for anybody but another stork to tell the male from the female.

"You can look, but you can't tell surely," he says.

The people subscribe to the fable that storks bring babies, just as we pretend to do in the United States.

But only one species of stork visits the United States, and they only come as far north as Florida, so one might wonder how the rest of the country gets babies.

Storks live long lives; one banded bird in Germany is 26 years old. But they are listed as an endangered species. Their number is declining, which may also account for Germany's relatively low birth rate.

The Berlin Zoo has 13 storks, all with their wings clipped except for a pair nesting on the roof of a half-timbered stable used as a children's zoo. There were three unclipped birds, but the third flew up to the elevated tracks nearby and got hit by a train. Man is easily the stork's worst enemy. Mr. Ochs attributes some of the decline in the stork population to Africans in famine-stricken areas who shoot them for food. They're shot in Spain, too.

Industrialization has killed off storks, too. Where there are elevated trains, for example, storks have a fatal tendency to fly into overhead power lines.

It's always been regarded as very bad luck to kill a stork. And if storks leave their nests, it's seen as a sign of war.

No storks came to Altlandsberg during World War II. Except for the captives in the Berlin Zoo, none has actually nested within the city of Berlin since the war.

There's an omen no one really wants to interpret.

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