Saving Poland's Storks

Habitat destruction is threatening these once-thriving birds—but Polish environmentalists are working to restore their numbers


| September-October 1999



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.