The curious case of Armenia´s oil-covered storks 

In 2017, the villagers of Hovtashen in the Ararat region of Armenia started noticing a strange phenomenon. The white storks they lived so closely with were not so white anymore – covered by a thick black substance, they were struggling to fly. As researchers and conservationists received the first alarm, they raced to help these iconic birds. Six years later, as we visit the Armavir region, we see these contaminated storks with our own eyes and learn that putting an end to this disaster is still far away.

Armenia´s white storks

The white stork is one of the most popular bird species. Storks characteristically nest near settlements and symbolise luck and fertility, so villagers often make artificial nests for them to keep them close by. In Armenia, the white stork is traditionally considered a sacred bird in legends and mythology, and it is regarded as the defender of fields. 

Living in the neighbourhood of humans, storks use the “services” of people. For example, during the operation of agricultural machines, many insects and rodents come to the surface or start running away, becoming easy prey for the storks, who therefore follow the machines and easily collect their prey. 

According to a nationwide monitoring conducted between 2006-2016, about 650 white stork nests were counted in Armenia, 85% of which are located in Ararat and Armavir regions. As a result of research carried out by the Armenian branch of the German Nature Conservation Union (NABU) in 2020-2021, it became clear that the population of white storks has expanded in the area. Only in the Ararat plain, the number of breeding pairs exceeds 1000.

Although white storks are migratory birds, the Ararat plain has been hosting a wintering population since the 1970s. This is due to the fact that humans have transformed the naturally dry steppe of the Ararat plain by creating fish ponds and artificial wetlands. This year-round food supply coupled with mild winters enabled some birds to stay here over winter. Aside rodents and insects in seasonal agricultural land, food waste from fish and poultry factories is a huge source of food for white storks, especially in winter.

Driving through many villages of Armavir, we see huge stork nests on electric poles, chimneys, rooftops and even cranes. Residents find joy in living together with these iconic birds. Levon Harutyunyan from NABU Armenia is responsible for the winter monitoring of this species.

We arrive to the Araks river valley in Armavir region with Levon Harutyunyan, project coordinator of NABU Armenia. He conducts the winter count of white storks here. As we drive through the villages, it seems like every single chimney, electric pole and rooftop holds an enormous stork nest. Local communities take pride in these nests as they recognize that storks are vital to their lands and symbolize this area being Armenia´s bread basket. But we also start to recognize something else. The plumage of many of the white storks is actually partially or completely black. Not black like the black stork – Armenia´s other, much more rare stork species – but rather dirty. And this is when we first hear about the big contamination catastrophe of white storks in Armenia.

Oily birds are not healthy birds

In 2017, the first alarms were received from the village of Hovtashen. Since 2020, the Armenian branch of NABU has launched the study program on the ecology of storks in the Ararat plain, with the aim of identifying the area of ​​pollution, causes, as well as monitoring pollution trends. In 2020, they found that almost 60% of all storks of the Ararat region were contaminated, and 40% in Armavir region. 

In 2021, compared to the previous year, the overall area of ​​pollution increased by 21%, and the percentage of contaminated storks increased by 16% in the Ararat region. Analyses have shown that the substance accumulated on the feathers is some kind of organic oil that binds dirt to the feathers.

The dark substance is visible to some degree on the plumage of almost all the storks we see.

Levon tells us that the contaminant can be seen both on the plumage of parents and chicks. This is directly related to the feeding pattern of white storks. While feeding the chicks, the parents put the half-digested food either into the beaks of the chicks or the nest. This process is often quite sloppy, resulting in spillage of food and water on the chicks’ heads, backs and rumps. With natural, clean food, feathers are easily cleaned over time. However, in the case of food contaminated with oil, birds cannot get rid of the contamination of their own, and it remains until the young chick has fully moulted.

“As a result of sun, moisture, and dirt, the organic oils contaminating the feathers harden, causing the feathers to lose their main characteristics, which is to enable flying and insulate the body. That´s why the very first flight of young storks, depending on the degree of pollution, is often unsuccessful. Therefore, they fall on the streets of settlements, becoming the target of speeding cars or stray dogs. It is heartbreaking to stand here and watch these majestic birds being so helpless and vulnerable.”

Levon Harutyunyan

What is the root of the problem?

So where does this contamination originate from? Luba Balyan, researcher at the Institute of Zoology at the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia, has an answer. She explains that there has been a big rise in artificial fisheries in the Ararat region, especially fisheries specialized on sturgeon. The sturgeon is a very oily fish, and there are sturgeon farms illegally dumping waste from gutted fish into nearby canals. This fish oil floats on the surface of the water and it covers the feathers of storks which are foraging for invertebrates and small vertebrates at the canal.

“This explains why in the cause of adult birds, only the rump and the belly are contaminated. But as they feed their chicks, those become almost fully covered in the oily substance.” she adds.

White storks gather around fishery and poultry factories, due to the dumping grounds for food waste these factories establish.

Community stork washing

The Institute of Zoology performed a series of tests over the course of seven days to find a way to get rid of the pollution. Surprisingly, the only thing that works is simple dishwashing liquid. Residents were eager to help their beloved birds, and a big movement of washing white storks started. Enthusiastic volunteers from local villages and the capital, including mayors and officials from the Ministry of Environment have been joining forces to clean the birds with dish soap. In 2020/2021, NABU also managed to transport 30 contaminated or injured white storks to the Yerevan Zoo, 13 of which were released into the wild after successful cleaning of their feathers.

“Unfortunately, due to the lack of specialized centres to clean and rehabilitate severely injured white storks, such measures won´t be enough” Levon adds. “The environmental disaster we are witnessing showed the need to open professional clinics and rehabilitation centres in Armenia not only for white storks, but also for other wild bird species. This is what NABU focuses on in the upcoming years, and hopefully, soon the first rehabilitation centre can be opened.

 Luba supports the establishment of rehabilitation centers, but expresses her skepticism about washing storks as a volunteer action.

“Contaminated birds need expert care in specialized care centres. Their feathers can easily be damaged if not handled correctly. Scrubbing too harshly will ruin their plumage, potentially making it impossible for the birds to fly.”

She also adds that storks can only be released into the wild after an appropriate recovery time, and according to Belgian experts, who consulted the case, washed storks should spend about six months under surveillance before they can be released. “Only then can we be sure that humans intervening and washing these storks doesn’t cause them further harm.”

Only scraping the surface

Since 2019, the community stork washing quickly made news headlines, and even the Ministry of Environment has been proudly promoting these efforts. However, according to Luba, the root cause is not being addressed. “There was even an official police investigation, however, it was closed soon after as they didn’t find enough evidence.” she tells us. Therefore, fisheries continue their illegal activities, while storks continue getting polluted and people keep trying to do the only thing they can to help, which is to wash the storks.

As we search for stork nests, we come close to some of the artificial canals as well. Next to a poultry factory, our noses catch a very annoying odour. We spot that the blood from a poultry slaughterhause flows straight into the canal. The workers of the slaughterhause seem tense to see us there with our cameras. Several other paths that were formerly used by the NABU colleagues to monitor white storks around fishponds are now closed by fisheries, and we don´t get permission to enter anymore.

Levon also adds that in addition to cleaning the birds, it is a must to find and eliminate all sources of pollution, otherwise all the work done by many people and organizations will be in vain.

The main task is to find out where exactly this oily substance comes from and to eliminate its source so that the birds are not contaminated anymore. Until the government doesn´t address this problem, we will keep cleaning these storks and letting them go, and they will keep getting dirty again. This is a vicious cycle, and realistically only the government has the tools to break it.”

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