White storks have found treasure in trash, ditching their winter migration from Europe to Africa in order to stay put and enjoy a steady diet of landfill junk food.
That's what scientists from the University of East Anglia found, in new research that showed many of the baby-deliverers of folklore nesting and living year-round near landfills in Spain and Portugal.
"Storks now rely on landfill sites for food, especially during the non-breeding season when other food sources are more scarce," said Aldina Franco, the study's lead researcher, in a press release. "This has facilitated the establishment of resident populations."
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Franco and her team tracked 48 white storks' movements between nesting and feeding areas to observe just how much they loved home-cooked trash.
"We found that the landfill sites enable year-round nest use, which is an entirely new behavior that has developed very recently," said Franco. "This strategy enables the resident birds to select the best nest sites and to start breeding earlier."
"Having a nest close to a guaranteed food supply also means that the storks are less inclined to leave for the winter," Franco added. "They instead spend their non-breeding season defending their highly desirable nest locations."
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Portugal, in particular, is in the midst of a long-running stork boom.
"Portugal's stork population has grown 10-fold over the last 20 years," Franco said. "The country is now home to around 14,000 wintering birds, and numbers continue to grow."
It might seem, then, that all is well and good. The birds have found a stable food supply and a place to rear their children. But trouble looms, in the form of imminent directives from the European Union.
"Rubbish dumps sites in Portugal are scheduled to be gradually replaced by new facilities where food waste is handled under cover," said Franco. "This will cause a problem for the storks as they will have to find an alternative winter food supply. It may well impact on their distribution, breeding location, chick fledging success and migratory decisions."
Franco and her team's findings have just been published in the journal Movement Ecology.