Pentowo, in northeast Poland, boasts 33 families of storks and only one human settlement. It’s the storks that govern the pace of life in this remote region at the edge of the European Union.
Storks are well known for the dubious quality of the nests they build. Perched precariously on tall tree stumps, telegraph poles or even the roofs of houses, they can be blown over by strong gales, destroyed by floods or in some cases simply collapse under their own weight. One nest built on the roof of a house not far from Pentowo was almost 9ft high and weighed six tons. Prevented by law from interfering with the nest in any way, the owners of the house were mightily relieved when the nest finally collapsed with their roof still intact.
Bogdan and Henryka Toczydlowski, the owners of the old farmhouse at Pentowo, decided in the 1990s to give the storks a helping hand and started to construct platforms on which the birds could build more sturdy homes. Their hard work was appreciated by the storks, which came in increasing numbers to raise their young in the summer months. In 2001, Pentowo was awarded the status of European Stork Village by Euronatur, resulting in a steady stream of visitors from around the world coming to witness the giant birds. There is now a designated Stork Trail cycle route that passes Pentowo and covers a multi-day route throughout Poland’s Podlasie region.
“Many people think that storks form pairs for life, but this is not true,” explains Bogdan, whose family has owned the farmland in Pentowo since 1875. He has studied the behaviour of visiting storks for many years. “A pair will stay together for a season, but when they migrate their relationship ends. The next year, they’ll come back and form a different pairing. They don’t even return to the same nest. Their internal GPS brings them back to within 16 miles of their previous home.”
Bogdan’s favourite time of the year is around June, when the youngsters have just hatched. “There’s so much activity, so much noise,” he tells me. “The young birds are constantly crying out, while the parents are flying back and forth, taking turns to fetch food for the family and look after the little ones.”
Storks are well known, of course, in stories told across the world, for bringing babies into the world. In Poland, superstitious people also believe having them build their home on your roof is lucky, because lightning, they say never strikes a stork’s nest. Perhaps this is only the case if it’s a small nest.
What is evident at Pentowo is the harmonious coexistence of stork and man. Storks prefer an environment where the hay is being regularly harvested or where land is maintained for pasture; here on the banks of the Narew River, they find this is abundance. Humans in turn are quite fond of having these giant birds around, even if their nest-building skills might cause the occasional headache.