Fishing Suspects Bonds With Stork Shining in Fish-Out-of-Water Story

A lone white stork posing on a boat in western Turkey has become a symbol of loyalty and friendship in a region steeped in folklore and mythology. The bird, called Yaren, returns to the same village and the same boat every year after migrating thousands of miles to Africa.

The story of the unusual friendship began in 2008, when the stork landed on the boat of Ayse Yilmaz, a fisherman in the hamlet of Eskikaraagac. A shy and reclusive man, Mr. Yilmaz, 70, initially threw the stork some fish, assuming it was hungry. Intrigued, he threw it another fish, and then another. The bird gobbled them down. Mr. Yilmaz knew that storks were generally scavengers that ate frogs, rats and snakes, but he decided to give it a try. The stork gobbled them down.

That first year, the stork returned to Mr. Yilmaz's boat repeatedly. After migrating south for the winter, it returned to the same village, the same nest and the same boat the next spring. The unlikely duo have been inseparable ever since.

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, but no serious fortune, to Mr. Yilmaz, estimated to be 70, and Yaren, 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 (Turkish for "coquette"), 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," 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.

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 to 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 the fifth year, 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.

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.

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 relationship with a stork was a bridge to a world beyond his daily toil. "They are God's creatures," he said.

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."

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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