Poland's love affair with the white stork, every summer.
By Natalie Skrzypczak
It's a common sight, but still a thrill for the inhabitants of the western Polish town of Klopot when the first stork chicks emerge from their shells. A great many more will be hatched this year nests perched on the rooftops of this town close to the Polish-German border. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are about 350,000 pairs of white storks (Ciciona ciciona) worldwide. According to the latest figures from the Birdlife organisation, Poland is home to about 50,000 breeding pairs - meaning it has by far the most white storks of any European country. "Klopot is the largest [stork] colony in western Poland," says Arkadiusz Stamm, a 26-year-old ornithologist working at what is Poland's only white stork museum. It is no coincidence that the museum is located here, Klopot is one of Poland's "stork villages," a place where many of the birds come to nest after having spent the winter in Africa. Likewise, the north-eastern Polish lakes region of Masuria is a favourite for the large migratory birds. Essentially, storks are drawn to places where there is plenty of nourishment. In Poland, with its many fields, pastures, lakes and wetland areas, that means insects, frogs and fish for the storks to feed on. Above all, Poland attracts birds migrating on what is known as the eastern route - from south of the Sahara, onwards to the Middle East and then to Eastern Europe, Stamm says. But construction in towns and villages and changes in agriculture are driving the birds further eastwards. "Increasingly, storks that had previously nested in Poland are now heading to Belarus or Lithuania," Stamm says. Spain also has many storks, with these birds flying the so-called western route via Gibraltar to reach Europe. Animal protection activists say the decline in Poland is above all being felt in the south west. There, only about half as many storks are breeding nowadays compared with ten years ago, says ornithologist Irek Kaluga, who has been working to protect the storks
for 18 years. Kaluga's group called "Grupa Ekologiczna" repairs storks' nests and builds supports to keep nests from toppling over. Storks themselves will refurbish existing nests with new sticks, so that over the years, a nest can reach a weight of hundreds of kilograms. Kaluga's passion for the white stork even recently took him to Lebanon. He says that each year, on their 10,000-kilometre migration to Europe, thousands of the birds are shot there by amateur hunters. In Syria and Oman, as well, people shoot the birds for sport, the 43-year-old says. Now, with the help of an animated cartoon film, Kaluga is hoping to stop the illegal shooting of the storks. He showed the 10-minute film in Lebanese schools in April to urge the children to work to protect the birds, and is hoping they took his message home with them to their parents. The children were touched by how Polish people feel a special attachment to the stork, he says. "We Poles love them and are proud of them. Of course part of it is because it is said that storks bring babies," he adds with a laugh. But it's also because storks live close to humans and in harmony with them. "They permit themselves to be watched, and so everyone has their own stories to tell about them. Some people are firmly convinced that the exact same stork comes back to their rooftop year and year out and they recognise it," he says with a chuckle. Despite declining numbers, Poland remains the land of the storks. "They simply belong to the Polish countryside." -DPA
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