HARBINGERS OF SPRING

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Storks have archetypal significance for life in Bulgaria

storks bulgaria_0.jpg

They are finally home: after flying thousands of kilometres from Africa, the storks have returned to Bulgaria, back to their old nests. Even more have passed through the country, on their way farther into Europe; according to the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds, about 75 percent of the storks on the continent arrive through Bulgaria.

In this country, white storks are important not only to local eco systems, but also in local lore. They are believed to bring spring on their wings, and Bulgarians take off their Martenitsa and tie them to a blossoming tree when they see their first stork of the year.

In spring and summer, storks are everywhere in Bulgaria. They traverse the fields and the fringes of rivers, dams and swamps, looking for food. They fill the sky, floating over villages and towns, and turn tall trees, lamp posts and electricity poles, chimneys and even the domes of rural churches into the foundations of their giant nests. Some of them are even Sofianites – for years there has been a nest on the first lamp post where the Trakiya motorway enters the Bulgarian capital.

Their autumn migration is a wondrous event. At the beginning of September, the storks' numerous caravans heading from Central and Eastern Europe meet in southeastern Bulgaria. Prompted by their mysterious sense of direction and time, flocks numbering tens of thousands of birds fill the skies, before beginning their long journey to central and southern Africa, where they spend the winter.

Poland is Europe's richest country stork-wise, with about 25 percent of the continent's Ciconia ciconia population residing there. Bulgaria, however, has its fair share of nesting pairs. The numbers are a bit unclear right now, as Europe is in the midst of the 2014-2015 international census of its stork population. According to the 2004/2005 census, 4,818 stork pairs nested in Bulgaria.

Preliminary data from this new census, however, points to an increase.

The absolute champion is Kostilevo village, near Plovdiv, where the number of storks nests has risen from two in 2004 to 22 in 2014. The four most populous stork communities in 2014 were in Dragushinovo and Belchin villages near Samokov, with 51 and 31 nests respectively, and the city of Saedinenie and Hadzhidimovo village near Blagoevgrad, with 29 nests each.

The results of the census are encouraging. More storks are indicative of a cleaner environment and undisturbed habitats for wildlife, but the data reveals more. In the past 10 years, storks have changed their habits and now prefer to build their nests not in the wild, but in or close to human settlements. Electricity poles are the most popular property spots for a nest. Even older pairs of storks have abandoned their old fashioned nests on buildings and chimneys, and have moved to the properties of EVN, E.ON and CEZ.

Storks, with their grace, beauty, long family life and ability to fly thousands of kilometres to get home have awed the people of the Balkans for millennia. For Bulgarians, the bird is laden with symbolism and is central to many legends which do not have anything to do with the old Western belief that storks bring babies.

It is not only the connection with spring and Martenitsa.

Many Bulgarians still try to predict the future using storks. The principle is simple: if the first stork you spot in a particular year is flying, that year will be a good one. If the stork is walking, prepare for trouble.

The old Bulgarian legends and fairy tales of storks are even more fascinating. According to them, when the storks leave Bulgaria, they arrive in a faraway land and there they turn into people. They have houses and villages, and they can talk and plough the fields. In the old fairy tales, it is a common feature for a hero to arrive in a strange village in a land far from home and to meet there a tall man who says: "I know you, I am the stork who nests on your house." Then the stork-man helps the traveller in some way.

That is why, traditionally, killing a stork has been seen as a sin. One of the most evocative short stories by Elin Pelin, The Willow of Uncle Stoichko, recalls such an event. A stubborn man decides to take revenge on the stork that has stolen his hat, and cuts down the old tree where the bird is nesting. Soon, misery and unhappiness befall the family of Uncle Stoichko.

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