Ride through the countryside during the short, brilliant Polish summer, along narrow roads lined with flush maple and linden trees, occasionally slowing the car to curve around a horse-drawn cart. Stop along the way in a village like this one, in northeast Poland near the Russian border, and locals will ask with quiet pride, "Have you seen our storks?"
The birds' distinctive big nests—old ones used over several years can weigh hundreds of kilos—might balance on the peak of a farmhouse roof, or on a chimney, or amid castle turrets, where some may have rested for a century. Increasingly, however, nests sit perilously atop power poles, with live wires running a few inches away, ready to electrocute an awkward fledgling as it first tries to fly.
Instead of being made solely of forest debris, nests near modern farms now sometimes include bits of discarded plastic rope that can tangle around the legs of the young, causing wounds and infections. And there's the rub. As wetlands shrink, farm methods change, and habitats become less diverse, fewer fledglings survive. International experts now classify the white stork as "vulnerable," which means its population decreased by 20 percent or more between 1970 and 1990.
The phenomenon is troubling to Poles, who like to remind visitors that "one out of four of the world's storks is Polish." Of 19 global species, only two breed in Europe: the rarely seen black stork, which lives deep in the darkest, wettest woods and avoids people; and the white stork of fairy tales, at home in human company, which breeds more in Poland (40,000 pairs) than in any other country. Keeping the population high here, bird experts say, is critical to the survival of the species.
It sounds easy. Polish law forbids killing or even scaring away a stork, or removing its nest from a roof except between certain (non-nesting) dates. Popular beliefs also protect the birds. Some villagers say that to kill a stork invites disaster in the community. Others believe that removing a nest causes the angry bird to return with a flaming branch to ignite the offender's house. The elegant white bird with its orange beak is considered a good omen, a Polish reflection of an ancient belief that the stork has a special relationship to humans. Early Christians believed that a stork flew around Christ's cross and showed him sympathy. In traditional European, Greek, and Arab tales, storks turn into human beings. One legend says they weep human tears.
Here in Zwykowo—a nine-family village that survives by harvesting potatoes, wheat, and rye—farmers report that storks accompany them to the fields, as if the big birds were friendly dogs, walking on their princely legs behind the old tractors, eating what comes up with the newly turned furrows.
"If a man doesn't like a stork, he doesn't like himself," says farmer Wladyslaw Andrejew, who was busy building nest platforms designed and financed by ProNatura, a Wroclaw-based organization supported by the Global Environment Facility, which is managed in part by the United Nations Development Programme. Andrejew and other ProNatura volunteers place the platforms on house and barn roofs to protect the structures from the weight of nests, or on utility poles, where 30 percent of storks now insist on raising their young. Beginning with 12 platforms in 1994, the group now has placed more than 5,000 across Poland.
ProNatura began small but cleverly, convincing local electric supply companies to construct safer grids, which in turn would save them downtime from nest fires and "leaking" power (a nest can drain up to 600 watts from electricity lines). The group courted the media, provided study materials to more than 250 schools, enlisted help from local authorities, and doggedly taught the entire country to protect its endangered wetlands.
Storks are a "flagship" species, like the U.S. bald eagle or Central America's jaguar. By conserving a charismatic animal, "you'll save many others," says Roman Guziak, co-founder and director of ProNatura. "Here storks mean wetlands, so saving them means saving frogs, toads, the corncrake—a short-billed, cranelike bird that loves to run in mud—and all the other animals you rarely see, or nobody cares about."
ProNatura got early support from the Global Environmental Facility, which backs 61 other Polish environmental projects, from protecting old pines in primeval forests to helping small towns conserve their water resources. All such efforts suggest Poland's new environmental consciousness, which has grown with the coming of democracy. The national government invests some $1 billion a year in environmental protection. Meanwhile, ordinary Poles, many of them youngsters, may band together to save a bat habitat or collect plastic rope from farm fields to protect baby storks. These are small steps away from a past in which industrial production fouled water and air—and toward a future when environmental concerns must weigh more heavily in national decisions. Poland must meet air and water quality standards before it can become part of the European Union; emission and greenhouse gas levels don't yet make the grade.
But Poland's role in a cleaner Europe is of little concern in Zwykowo this bright day. Instead, Andrejew invites me into his house and speaks over warm, home-baked rye bread of the coming winter, the price of grains—and storks. "We have 42 pairs of storks in Zwykowo," Andrejew says. "That's a European village record, you know.
From Choices (April 1999). Available from United Nations Development Programme, One United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017.