A bird that brings people together

Storks wherever you look. The stork village of Pentowo in Poland is an Eldorado for stork fans. The 20th meeting of the European Stork Villages took place there in May 2023: a unique experience for everyone involved.

Two storks on their nest, trees in the background. Two storks on their nest, trees in the background.
© Christian Stielow

The Polish stork village of Pentowo from the stork's perspective

© Adam Zbyryt

If you like white storks, you'll love this place in north-eastern Poland: in an area roughly the size of two football pitches, 23 pairs of the large wading birds are raising their young. Only a handful of other villages can boast a similarly high concentration of stork pairs in such a small area. There’s a constant clattering sound coming from the nests and storks glide like low-flying planes over the heads of visitors. The stork’s already low flight distance (the distance at which the bird will take flight when approached by a potential predator) seems to have been almost completely cast aside in Pentowo. 

Stork fans eagerly clamber up the large observation tower that stands in the middle of a grassy area in Pentowo and find themselves at eye level with the black-and-white birds. Those with binoculars to hand are able to look right into the storks’ eyes - a moving experience. There are few other places in Europe where it’s possible to get such a close-up glimpse into the family life of these charismatic birds.

A Polish premiere

View of Tykocin with its magnificent church; in the foreground is the Narew River. Many bird species that have become rare or are threatened with extinction in Central Europe still live in the extensive reed beds along the banks of the river.

© Ilka Beermann

The 20th meeting of the European Stork Villages Network took place from 22 to 25 May 2023. Hosting the event for the first time was the commune of Tykocin. The village of around 2,000 inhabitants is situated in north-eastern Poland, on the banks of the Narew River. Up until the Second World War, Tykocin was one of the most important centres of Jewish life in Poland; even today, the large restored synagogue and a nationally renowned restaurant serving kosher food serve as reminders of the commune’s former significance. In the extensive reed beds along the Narew, several different warbler species sing, the bittern lets out its hollow call - clearly audible in the village at night - and the golden oriole can be heard fluting from the wet woodland.

Birds in reed beds and marshland forests

But the real star of the avian show in Tykocin is the white stork - although you have to travel three kilometres west of the village if you really want to see a lot of them. That's where you’ll find Pentowo - little more than a farmstead with three large stables and two cosy wooden houses. Pentowo forms part of the commune of Tykocin, and it’s here that this single farmstead is host to the largest white stork colony in Poland.

  • Directions & accomodation

    The Holy Trinity Church in Tykocin by night

    Trinity Church in Tykocin

    © Ilka Beermann
    Polish amateur actors in historical uniforms

    Amateur actors in historical costumes recall the early modern wars in the region.

    © Ilka Beermann

    The small town of Tykocin has around 6,000 inhabitants. It is located in north-eastern Poland in the basin of the Narew and Biebrza rivers. The nearest train station is in Białystok. Buses run from there to Tykocin. The town's most beautiful buildings, including the magnificent Holy Trinity Church, surround the baroque market place. Tykocin is known for its Jewish past. Today, the Great and Small Synagogues and the Talmud House are home to museums and a well-known Jewish restaurant. The Jewish cemetery is located on a hill to the west of the town. Almost the entire Jewish population of Tykocin fell victim to the crimes of the National Socialists.

    The rebuilt royal castle is located on the right bank of the Narew close to Tykocin. You can learn a lot about the history of the secular building and the military conflicts of the early modern period, especially with the Swedes. The battles are re-enacted in the castle courtyard several times a year. It is also worth climbing the former prison tower, the highest lookout point in the flat landscape. The conservationists and community representatives were accommodated in the Hotel Alumnat during the Stork Village Meeting - a building with an exciting history: the Swedes had their military hospital here during the battles around Tykocin.

    A bus runs from Tykocin to Pentowo, around three kilometers away, to Łukasz Toczyłowski's farm. It is also worth taking a trip to the nearby Narew National Park, which is particularly famous for the fascinating meanders of the upper Narew valley.

This year (2023) 23 stork pairs are breeding on the specially installed platforms and in the trees around the farmstead. . Overall, Pentowo’s evolution has been astonishing. At the end of the 1980s, just two pairs raised their young there. Thanks to the determination of farm owner Łukasz Toczyłowski and his father - and a collaboration with local bird protection association, North Podlasian Bird Protection Association (POTP) - it has been possible to increase the number of nests 15-fold by constructing artificial nesting platforms.

  • Poland: The stork’s (former) happy place

    Stork nests in Pentowo on a roof, on a bare tree and on a pole.

    Formerly a common sight throughout Poland: stork's nests everywhere.

    © ESV Pentowo

    Hostile agricultural land instead of species-rich wet meadows: This development is also taking place in Poland.

    © Lutz Ribbe

    Germany’s easterly neighbour, Poland, is the stork paradise of Europe. There’s nowhere else in the white stork’s vast range - from Morocco to Uzbekistan - where more of them breed. A centuries-old system of extensive agriculture and a mosaic of habitats consisting of wet grassland, pasture and water courses provide ideal living conditions. Recently, however, the Polish white stork population has been in decline - due in part to the migratory route these ‘gliders’ take. Poland's storks are long-distance migrants who spend the winter in the east and south of Africa. Many dangers lie in wait on their long migration journey. By contrast, the storks of Western Europe enjoy a safer existence. Milder winters mean they will often no longer cross the Mediterranean at all, remaining instead on the Iberian Peninsula. Populations of these short-distance migrants have been increasing for years.

    But there's another reason why the Polish stork population is in decline: agricultural intensification. Grassland is being drained and pastures converted to arable land. White storks are unable to find sufficient food there. In western Poland, where this is taking place at a faster rate, white stork populations have fallen by 50 per cent in the last few years. In the eastern part of the country, extensive forms of agriculture are still much more common and numbers there have fallen by a ‘mere’ 20 per cent.

Storks are suffering from habitat loss, colliding with power lines and being shot down on their migration routes. Because of these multiple threats affecting their breeding, resting and overwintering sites, local initiatives such as those promoted by the European Stork Villages Network are more important than ever when it comes to protecting the birds.

Portrait Adam Zbyryt Adam Zbyryt, stork village Pentowo/Tykocin

Where frogs and corncrakes bid one another good night

Łukasz Toczyłowski runs a horse farm and stables in Pentowo. Local people can stable their horses with Łukasz, who also offers riding lessons and carriage rides. Łukasz gives guided tours around his farm too, where an information centre, two viewing towers and a series of information boards provide visitors with the opportunity to learn more about the white stork.

The foraging grounds nearby are managed in a nature-friendly way. Frogs frolic in what was once a meander in the Narew River, their sporadic croaking gradually intensifying to become a raucous concert after dark. The wet grassland, which was drained in the past but has now been restored by partial rewetting, is extensively grazed by the farm's horses or mown at staggered intervals. And it's not just the stork who likes it that way: a family of cranes strides through the tall grass and, at dusk, the characteristic ‘crex crex’ call of the corncrake can be heard.

Frogs croak and the corncrake performs its courtship display: evening in Pentowo

© Ilka Beermann

A mayor in cycling shorts

Mariusz Dudzinski und Lukasz Toczyłowski auf Pferdekutsche in Pentowo

Two people who share a passion for the storks. Pictured left: Mayor Mariusz Dudziński and Łukasz Toczyłowski, owner of the farmstead in Pentowo, take an idyllic carriage ride.

© Ilka Beermann
A group of people stand in front of a painting.

Stork conservationists from six different nations - brought together by the white stork.

© EuroNatur
Stork conservationists work together in groups in Pentowo

Concentrated work in small groups during the conference

© Ilka Beermann

The recent increased involvement of the Polish stork village in the network - and, as a consequence, its organisation of the first ever network meeting in Tykocin at the end of May this year - is also a measure of how much the award is appreciated within the commune. Mayor Mariusz Dudziński, who has held office for three years, recognised the value of the title ‘European Stork Village’ and, with the help of his team, organised a successful meeting full of warm hospitality and local colour. Dudziński was present on each of the conference days, even cycling between Tykocin and Pentowo after work so he could also attend the social event. That evening, the midges got to know one particular victim very well indeed...

Stork conservationists and representatives from five other stork villages made the journey to Tykocin. “Unfortunately, the turnout at this meeting was rather poor,” says Ilka Beermann, the initiative’s project manager at EuroNatur. “In some communities, interest in sharing ideas and knowledge seems to be low. But as long as there are still motivated people in the stork villages, we will keep the network going.”

Face-to-face meetings, like the one in Tykocin at the end of May, certainly help to boost the motivation levels of those who attend - that much was plain to see. “We were able to engage in in-depth discussions and had more time than usual to discuss developments in the individual communities,” said Beermann. Maybe it’s precisely this kind of exchange, on both a personal and a transnational level, that has kept the European Stork Villages initiative alive over 29 years and 20 meetings: the mix of motivated avian conservationists and dedicated people from the communities, the interplay between species conservation and the political will to act in the best interests of these feathered honorary citizens. All of them - volunteers and professionals, conservationists and local politicians - are brought together by this charismatic poster bird of our semi-natural pastures: the white stork. 

  • The network of European Stork Villages

    A group of people are standing in a meadow around a pole with a stork's nest.
    © Ilka Beermann
    Logo of the European Stork Villages initiative

    With the European Stork Village Network (ESVN), EuroNatur is countering the increasing loss of habitat for storks in Europe and the dangers on their migration route. The foundation has awarded one "European Stork Village" per country since 1994. The candidates include villages or communities in which storks live in colonies and which are particularly committed to protecting storks, for example by extensively farming wide wet meadows. The villages become internationally known through the award as a special cultural and natural heritage site. This strengthens successful approaches to stork conservation. 15 villages are currently represented in the network, from Spain to Switzerland and Turkey. The next stork village meeting will take place in Čigoć, Croatia - exactly 30 years after the village was awarded the title of Europe's first stork village. Please find more information about the network on the ESVN website: https://www.storkvillages.net/

The author of this article lives in a part of Germany with a large number of storks. But he has never seen so many white storks in one place as in Pentowo.