Armenian 'Stork Girls' Recruit Local Villagers to Keep an Eye on the Big Birds

citizen stork researcher Armenian village photo

Stork scientist Maro Kochinyan meets with a village "researcher." Photo via AUA Acopian Center for the Environment.

A pair of Armenian researchers who locals call the "stork girls" are recruiting "nest neighbors" in rural villages to help them monitor the country's population of the large wading birds, which have traditionally been a symbol of luck and success in the former Soviet Republic.For the past four years, ArmeniaNow reports, young scientists Lusine Stepanyan and Maro Kochinyan have been visiting "virtually every area where storks nest in Armenia [to] distribute special calendars among the residents living near the nests." Participating villagers, known as "nest neighbors," use the calendars to track when the storks return to the area and when they start breeding; the first days that nestlings appear, and then start to fly; and when the storks leave again, among other data.

Tracking Environmental Change
"We decided to study a widely spread species rather than a rare bird or a species on the verge of extinction. It would enable us to see how the changes in the environment affect the number of birds and their nestlings," Karen Aghababyan, senior avian researcher at American University of Armenia's Acopian Environmental Research Center, the group behind the project, told ArmeniaNow.

Though widespread throughout Armenia, storks are threatened in some areas by pesticides and heavy metals in the environment, which accumulate throughout the food chain in the fish and small animals the big birds eat. Early results of the AUA surveys show that storks in the Ararat Valley and Vayots Gorge are hatching few or no nestlings, potentially indicating the illegal use of chemical pesticides.

In general, though, storks seem to be thriving in Armenia, where the number of nesting pairs and nestlings has gone up over the four years the "neighbors" have been conducting surveys. According to Aghababyan, the change may be the unexpected consequence of two environmental dangers.

Global Warming Gives Stork Populations a Boost
Warming temperatures may have increased local insect populations, in turn boosting the number of frogs, which storks eat. In addition, Aghababyan told ArmeniaNow, "in some places, the increase in the number of storks may also be conditioned by the existence of poultry and fish farms that are surrounded by large quantities of food wastes" -- with some birds feeding off that waste to such a degree that they don't even need to migrate away in the winter.

In addition to providing useful data, the "nest neighbors" project is increasing local villagers' connection with nature. Gohar Hayrapetyan, 41, from Hovtashat village in Ararat province, told the news website that she enjoys watching the storks that nest on a post in her garden. "I draw parallels with our life," she said. "I watch them building their nests bringing in twigs, hatching out their young, and then the young ones leave. Just like people." Via: "Village 'researchers' help monitor storks and environment in Armenia," ArmeniaNow
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