A stork, a fisherman and their unlikely bond enchant Turkey

Thirteen years ago, a poor fisherman in a small Turkish village was retrieving his net from a lake when he heard a noise behind him and turned to find a majestic being standing on the bow of his rowboat.

Glittering white feathers covered its head, neck and chest, giving way to black feathers on its wings. He stood on thin orange legs that almost matched the color of his long, pointed beak.

The fisherman, Adem Yilmaz, recognized it as one of the white storks that had spent the summer in the village for a long time, but he had never seen one so close up, much less hosted on his boat.

Wondering if he was hungry, he tossed him a fish, which the bird devoured. He threw another. And another.

Thus began an unlikely tale of man and bird that has captivated Turkey over the years – and a clever social media campaign by a local wildlife photographer – has spread the couple's story as a modern-day tale of friendship between different species.

The stork, nicknamed Yaren, or “companion,” in Turkish, not only returned to Mr. Yilmaz's boat several times that first year, the fisherman said, but after migrating south for the winter, returned the following spring in the same village, in the same nest – and the same boat.

Last month, after Yaren appeared in the village for the thirteenth consecutive year, local media gleefully covered his arrival as if it were the spring sighting of a Turkish Punxsutawney Phil.

The couple's story has brought unexpected fame, though no real fortune, to Mr Yilmaz, 70, and Yaren, estimated to be 17. They starred together in a children's book and an award-winning documentary. A children's adventure film featuring a cameo by Mr Yilmaz (and a digital rendition of the stork) is due to debut in cinemas across Turkey this year.

Stork lovers around the world can watch Yaren and her mate, Nazli, or “coquette” in Turkish, strut, wriggle their necks, snap their beaks, renew their nests, and occasionally mate, thanks to a 24-hour webcam set up by local authorities. government.

“This is not a story. This is a true story,” Ali Ozkan, the mayor of Karacabey, whose district includes the village, said in an interview. “It's a true story that has the flavor of a fairy tale.”

The bird's celebrity has bolstered municipal efforts to boost local tourism with walking trails and cafes near the district's lakes and wetlands, he said. The area has developed a stork “master plan” to care for the birds.

He initially faced some criticism from voters who wondered why a mayor was involved with storks, he said. But now, residents call when they notice damaged nests, and a friend in another city recently called to complain that he couldn't see Yaren on the webcam.

The story put Yilmaz's village, Eskikaraagac, with a population of 235, on the map, attracting groups of students and tourists who stroll its narrow streets to see storks and take boat trips on nearby Uluabat Lake. Many visitors seek out Yaren's nest, which sits on a platform atop an electric pole near Mr. Yilmaz's house, and act as if amazed when they meet the fisherman himself, peppering him with questions and posing for photographs.

On a recent morning, Mr. Yilmaz stood in the backyard of his small two-story house holding a tank of fish he had caught. In their nest above them, Yaren and Nazli dozed, groomed themselves, and filled the air with the percussive clicking of their beaks.

“Friend!” Mr. Yilmaz called.

Both birds glided toward the courtyard, and Mr. Yilmaz lifted the fish into their beaks.

“They are full,” Mr. Yilmaz announced after the birds downed about two dozen fish. “After 13 years, I can say that.”

Storks have long nested in the village, arriving in spring and mating before migrating towards Africa in late summer.

Village elders remember when there seemed to be a stork's nest on every roof and residents struggled to stop the birds from taking their washing off the outside lines. But most people liked the birds, whose arrival soon after the pink flowers bloomed on the almond trees was a harbinger of spring.

Ridvan Cetin, the village's elected authority, said a count in the 1980s found 41 active nests, or 82 storks, not including chicks.

This year, the village has only four active nests, including Yaren's.

“There are very few of them now,” Mr. Cetin said sadly.

No one in the village could remember a bond similar to that between Mr. Yilmaz and Yaren.

“I've never seen anything like it,” Mr. Cetin said.

For Mr. Yilmaz, a quiet man with leathery hands and a gentle, furrowed face, Yaren was a fortuitous addition to what he had hoped would be a belated, restful chapter in an otherwise difficult life.

He grew up poor. His father took him out of school to work in the fields and fish, no matter how cold he was.

“My life was between the camp and the lake,” he said.

His mother died when he was 13. His father remarried when he was 17 to a woman that Mr. Yilmaz didn't like. So, with only an elementary school education, he fled to Bursa, the nearest big city, and worked in a factory producing yogurt and other dairy products.

At 19, she married another villager she had known since childhood. They lost their first child, a girl, weeks after she was born. He worked in several dairy factories while he and his wife raised three other children, two sons and a daughter.

In 2011, when his children grew up and live elsewhere with his five grandchildren, he stopped working, returned to the village and moved to his childhood home, near the lake where he had fished as a child.

“Going to my village to fish was my dream from the day I started working,” he said.

Shortly thereafter, the stork landed on his boat.

Every time Yaren left, Mr. Yilmaz wondered if he would return. But after a few years he stopped worrying.

“I was sure that as long as I was alive, this bird would return,” he said.

At first, no one cared much that Mr. Yilmaz had befriended a stork. The other villagers teased him or said he was wasting his time – and his fish.

That changed in year five, when Alper Tuydes, a hunter-turned-wildlife photographer working for the local government, began sharing photographs of the couple on social media. The story spread, improving each spring with Yaren's arrival.

The human-bird relationship matches the known behaviors of storks, said Omer Donduren, a Turkish ornithologist.

Although storks avoid direct contact with people, they often roost near them, on rooftops, in chimneys or on electricity poles.

The birds tend towards monogamy and show fidelity to their nests, separating from their partners to migrate, but reuniting in the same nest in spring to breed.

That may explain why Yaren roosts near Mr. Yilmaz's house year after year, Donduren said.

Storks, which can live for more than 20 years in the wild and more than 30 in captivity, also have strong memories, allowing them to remember migratory routes from the far north of Poland and Germany to destinations many thousands of years away. kilometers south, up to South Africa. It's unclear where Yaren spent her time after leaving the village, but a tracker affixed to one of her children followed the bird to Syria, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic before it stopped working .

As time passed, Yaren's experiences with Mr. Yilmaz likely became part of his memory, he said.

“Nature doesn't have much room for emotion,” Donduren said. “For the stork it is a matter of easy food. He thinks: Here is an easy source of food. This man seems safe. He doesn't hurt me.”

Mr. Yilmaz's explanation is much simpler.

“It's just loving an animal,” he said. “They are creatures of God.”

On a recent morning, Mr. Yilmaz paddled into the lake and pulled up the net, dropping small fish into the boat.

“Yaren!” he called.

The stork took flight, circled to survey the boat, and perched on a lamppost near the shore.

“The tongue!” Mr. Yilmaz called again.

The bird took flight again, finally landing on the boat, where Mr. Yilmaz tossed it fish after fish.

After a while the stork took flight, flew around the village and returned to its nest.

“That's all,” Mr. Yilmaz said with a satisfied smile. “Is full.”

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