AUA Acopian Center for the Environment Continues to Support White Storks with the Help of Villagers and Yerevan Zoo
More than a year after the completion of its White Storks Project, the AUA Acopian Center for the Environment continues to receive calls for support from villagers in the Ararat Plain seeking advice on how to care for stork chicks that are displaced or injured from natural or human causes.
From the start of the current breeding season in early Spring to date, the Center’s logs show 37 such calls. More than half of these callers received advice on how to handle the emergency and care for the nestlings—young storks yet unable to fly. For the remainder, the AUA Acopian Center sent a vehicle to the villages to provide either veterinarian care on the spot or bring the nestlings to Yerevan for care.
To date, 13 nestlings were transferred to Yerevan to be placed under special care. Eight of these have survived. The injuries of the others were too severe, making their survival impossible with wildlife rehabilitation capabilities available in Armenia.
“We are pulling together the community resources as best as we can,” says Karen Aghababyan, chief scientist of the AUA Acopian Center. In one instance, the AUA Acopian Center sought the help of Yerevan Zoo for 4 nestlings that were thrown out of their nests during strong winds in the Ranchpar and Apaga villages.
“Such an incident, under natural conditions, eliminates the nestlings’ chances of survival. If they are not in their nests, their mothers stop caring for them,” says Dr. Aghababyan. According to him, it is best to return the nestlings to their nests immediately. But this is not always possible as necessary equipment may not be readily available. “When this happens [i.e., too much time passes] the mother may reject the nestlings if returned to the nest,” explains Dr. Aghababyan.
The concerned villagers cared for these four storks and then called the AUA Acopian Center for advice. As too much time had gone by, the AUA Acopian Center sent a vehicle to the villages to transfer the birds to the Yerevan Zoo.
“We are happy to serve as a transitory home for these four orphaned stork nestlings that hopefully will soon rejoin their flock,” say Mr. Ruben Khachatryan, director of the Zoo. He adds that “To serve nature conservation and wildlife is one of Yerevan Zoo’s main objectives.”
The storks will stay at the Zoo until they learn to fly and hunt, which is expected to happen in the coming month. While their ability to fly will develop naturally, their hunting skills require learning. “Their hunting skills will be tested at the Zoo. They will also have additional occasions to learn from other storks back in the Ararat Plain in August,” explains Dr. Aghabayan.
He adds that while the Acopian Center typically does not want to intervene in the natural processes affecting stork populations, “there are many instances where the birds are injured as a result of man made environments, such as electrical wires, pesticides in water, and the like.” He stresses that the Center’s efforts to save the storks is a small compensation for all the instances where we humans cause harm to the stork population. “Also it provides great educational opportunity for the communities involved,” concludes Dr. Aghababyan.
The White Stork Project
The White Stork Project focuses on using the very common and abundant White Stork as a potential bio-indicator of environmental changes in Armenia. By studying migration patterns and reproductive ecology of White Storks, it will be possible to determine potential impacts of climate change and increased pesticide/herbicide use in Armenia. The project is unique in that it uses villagers as citizen scientists or ‘Nest Neighbors’ in the data collection process. Their involvement with the research gives them a better understanding of wildlife ecology and improves the relationship between people and nesting storks. Prior to migration, Acopian Center scientists distribute calendar-questionnaires in the villages and show the villagers how to record information on stork arrival, departure and number of fledglings. After the storks have migrated, Acopian Center scientists collect the calendars and enter the information into a GIS database.
During the spring, our staff also bands the nestlings and takes water and soil samples in stork feeding areas for later analysis. The Acopian Center for the Environment launched a survey on pesticide use in the Ararat Valley after the first results from soil and water sampling indicated the presence of pesticide contamination. Substantial information on almost 1000 confirmed nest sites in Armenia has been collected through 2009.
‘Nest Neighbor’ Celebrations
During the fall, Acopian Center researchers conduct award ceremonies to honor ‘Nest Neighbors’. At these celebrations, certificates and gifts are awarded, accompanied by songs and plays about storks performed by school children and speeches delivered by village representatives.
Dr. Aghababyan launched ‘Nest Neighbors’; working with farmers and villagers, to increase public understanding of storks and their habitat. By becoming involved in wetland conservation, Armenians are starting to take notice of what is being decided for natural resource use at local, national and international levels. Now, over 500 families are involved in ‘Nest Neighbors’ and regularly monitor the stork population.
Since 1994 the Whitley Awards have been awarded annually. They are one of the largest nature conservation awards available, recognizing outstanding efforts by leading local conservationists whose work is based on sound science and which fully involves local communities.
Dr. Karen Aghababyan’s research on the white stork is focused in the Ararat Valley, home to agriculture for thousands of years. During the Soviet years the wetland areas were reduced by Government draining and although they are slowly recovering a new threat has emerged – Armenia has been granted $200 million for infrastructure development, including draining the Ararat wetlands at the base of Mount Ararat, for conversion to agriculture. For centuries the White Stork has been regarded with great affection in Europe. Although they were once prolific, the intensification of agriculture and draining of wetlands has resulted in a decline in the populations. Traditionally storks like to keep their feet wet feeding in wetlands ditches or ponds where they catch frogs, lizards and small rodents. Although many Armenians feel indifferently towards wetlands, White Storks are seen as a cultural icon. They are seldom persecuted and when storks nest close to people, on anything from telegraph poles to roofs, it is a sign of good luck. Dr. Aghababyan has made birds popular in Armenia, teaching bird identification courses in English, Russian and Armenian. Using the White Stork as a flagship species, Dr. Aghababyan launched ‘Nest Neighbors’; working with farmers and villagers, to increase public understanding of storks and their habitat. By becoming involved in wetland conservation, Armenians are starting to take notice of what is being decided for natural resource use at local, national and international levels. Now, over 500 families are involved in ‘Nest Neighbors’ and regularly monitor the stork population.
HRH The Princess Royal and Sir David Attenborough (not pictured) presented the Whitley Award to Dr. Karen Aghababyan in 2007 at London’s Royal Geographical Society. It was the first time anyone from Armenia has won the Award.
White Stork Ringing (Banding)
1988 – present: Bird ringing or bird banding, unfortunately, is not a target activity for Birds of Armenia. Nevertheless, during implementation of our projects we used the chances of ringing various species in small numbers. Among ringed birds are species such as:
Black and Griffon Vultures
Eastern Rock Nuthatch
The major ringing (banding) activity was conducted within the framework of the White Stork Project – there have been 284 White Stork nestlings ringed.
Thus Birds of Armenia keeps a database of ring (band) records for Armenia, information for ring recoveries for the last 20 years, and distributes and manages rings among local responsible ringers.
In 2008 ring (band) data regarding a White Stork was obtained. The bird was found in Saudi Arabia 1418 kilometers far from its ringing site.