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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.

Gleaming white feathers covered its head, neck and chest, yielding to black plumes on its wings. It stood atop skinny orange legs that nearly matched the color of its long, pointy beak.

The fisherman, Adem Yilmaz, recognized it as one of the white storks that had long summered in the village, he recalled, but he had never seen one so close, much less hosted one on his boat.

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

So began an unlikely tale of man and bird that has captivated Turkey as the passing years — and a deft social media campaign by a local nature photographer — have spread the pair’s story as a modern-day fable of cross-species friendship.

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

Last month, after Yaren appeared in the village for the 13th year in a row, the local news media gleefully covered his arrival like the springtime sighting of a Turkish Punxsutawney Phil.

The pair’s story has brought unexpected fame, although no serious fortune, to Mr. Yilmaz, 70, and Yaren, estimated to be 17. They have co-starred in a children’s book and an award-winning documentary. A children’s adventure movie featuring a cameo by Mr. Yilmaz (and a digital rendering of the stork) is expected to debut in cinemas across Turkey this year.

Stork lovers everywhere can watch Yaren and his partner, Nazli, or “coquette” in Turkish, as they preen, contort their necks, clack their beaks, renovate their nest and occasionally mate, thanks to a 24-hour webcam set up by the local government.

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

The bird’s celebrity has bolstered municipal efforts to increase local tourism with walking paths and coffee shops 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 constituents who wondered why a mayor was getting involved with storks, he said. But now, residents call in when they notice damaged nests, and a friend from another city recently phoned him to complain that he could not see Yaren on the webcam.

The story has put Mr. Yilmaz’s village of Eskikaraagac — population 235 — on the map, drawing groups of students and tourists who stroll its narrow streets to see the storks and take boat rides on neighboring Lake Uluabat. Many visitors seek out Yaren’s nest, which sits on a platform atop an electric pole near Mr. Yilmaz’s house, and act star-struck when they encounter the fisherman himself, peppering him with questions and posing for photographs.

One recent morning, Mr. Yilmaz stood in the yard of his small, two-story house holding a tub of fish he had caught. In their nest overhead, Yaren and Nazli dozed, groomed themselves and filled the air with the percussive clacking of their beaks.

“Yaren!” Mr. Yilmaz called.

Both birds glided down to the yard, and Mr. Yilmaz lofted fish into their beaks.

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

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

Village elders recall when there seemed to be a stork nest on every roof and residents struggled to prevent the birds from swiping laundry from outdoor lines. But most people liked the birds, whose arrival right after 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, meaning 82 storks, not including chicks.

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

“Now they are very few,” Mr. Cetin said sadly.

No one in the village could recall 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 kind, rutted face, Yaren was a serendipitous addition to what he had hoped would be a late, restful chapter in an otherwise difficult life.

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

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

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

At 19, he married another villager he had known since childhood. They lost their first child, a daughter, weeks after her birth. He worked in different milk factories as he and his wife raised three other children, two boys and a girl.

In 2011, with his children grown and living elsewhere with his five grandchildren, he stopped working, returned to the village and moved back into his childhood home, next to the lake where he had fished as a child.

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

Soon after, the stork landed on his boat.

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

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

Early on, no one much cared that Mr. Yilmaz had made friends with a stork. 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 who works for the local government, began sharing photographs of the pair on social media. The story spread, getting a lift each spring with Yaren’s arrival.

The relationship of man and bird corresponds with known stork behaviors, said Omer Donduren, a Turkish ornithologist.

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

The birds tend toward monogamy and display loyalty to their nests, parting ways with their partners to migrate, but rendezvousing in the same nest in the spring to reproduce.

That could explain why Yaren has roosted near Mr. Yilmaz’s house year after year, Mr. Donduren said.

Storks, which can live for more than 20 years in the wild and more than 30 in captivity, also have strong memories, enabling them to remember migration routes from as far north as Poland and Germany to destinations many thousands of miles south, as far as South Africa. It is unclear where Yaren spends his time after he leaves the village, but a tracker affixed to one of his offspring followed the bird over Syria, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic before it stopped working.

Over time, Yaren’s experiences with Mr. Yilmaz have probably become part of his memory, he said.

“Nature doesn’t have much space for emotions,” Mr. Donduren said. “For the stork, it is a matter of easy food. It thinks, There is an easy source of food here. This man seems safe. He doesn’t hurt me.”

Mr. Yilmaz’s explanation is much simpler.

“It is just to love an animal,” he said. “They are God’s creatures.”

One recent morning, Mr. Yilmaz rowed into the lake and pulled up his net, dropping small fish into the boat.

“Yaren!” he called.

The stork took flight, did a loop to surveil the boat and perched on a lamppost near the bank.

“Yaren!” Mr. Yilmaz called again.

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

After a while, the stork lifted off, glided around the village and returned to his nest.

“That’s it,” Mr. Yilmaz said with a satisfied smile. “He is full.”

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