Country diary: To Ukrainians, the storks’ return is a glimmer of hope | Ukraine

My name is Oleksandr Ruchko and I am a birdwatcher. Because I am 59 years old, I still have another few months when I can be called into action by the military recruitment office, to fight in the war with Russia. Lately I have been providing birdwatching tours around the parks in Lviv, my home. The tours are with refugees who have come here from cities around Ukraine, including Kyiv and Kharkiv. They have lost their homes and some have lost family members. I’m trying to help them to be calm, and take a break from thinking about what is happening.

Spring is the best time for birdwatching here. You can hear the song of flycatchers, wrens, black redstarts and yellowhammers, and all the migrants are coming back to breed, including swifts, house martins, chiffchaffs, golden orioles and cuckoos. The most famous one is the white stork, Ukraine’s national bird. The stork is very sacred to Ukrainians, a symbol of spring, of babies, and of peace. They are believed to be a kind of amulet, and protect your house against evil. Nobody here ever kills storks to eat, not even in the worst times like the Holodomor or the Holocaust.

At the moment, because of the war, it is a problem to watch birds with binoculars or telescopes. Any person using these things will cause suspicion, so we must use our ears and eyes instead. Nobody wants to look like a spy.

But sometimes you only need your ears and eyes. My wife and I were driving back from the Carpathian mountains last week, where we had gone for a few days to escape the air-raid sirens. Near to the village of Rozvadiv, we saw above us a group of storks, gliding in the sky with no effort. They looked like aristocrats, calm and sure of themselves. The area is attractive for storks because of the Dniester river – its valley has lots of swamps and small ponds which have the right food.

This was a good sign, I thought. It meant that despite the snow in the fields, spring had finally arrived. But maybe they will bring us peace soon too. The flying bird is the ultimate symbol of freedom. They don’t know borders, they need no visas or permissions to spend winter in Egypt then come back to Ukraine. And we are all happy that they are back safely, giving us hope for better times.

Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

Oleksandr promotes birdwatching in Ukraine as an alternative to bird hunting. His website is here and his Instagram here

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