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Migrating eagles have been rerouted by the war in Ukraine

A new study has revealed the impact of the war in Ukraine on the migration of the endangered greater spotted eagle. 

The experts compared the eagles‘ movement through Ukraine before and after Russia’s invasion in February 2022. They found that the eagles deviated from their migratory routes, spending less time at traditional refueling sites or avoiding them entirely, which resulted in longer journeys and later arrivals at their nesting grounds.

Conflicts cause widespread disturbances 

“The war in Ukraine has had a devastating impact on people and the environment. Our findings provide a rare window into how conflicts affect wildlife, improving our understanding of the potential impacts of exposure to such events or other extreme human activities that are difficult to predict or monitor,” said lead author Charlie Russell, a postgraduate researcher at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

“These types of disturbances can have significant impacts on the behavior, and potentially fitness of the eagles. For individuals breeding in these areas, or other species that are less able to respond to disturbance, the impacts are likely to be much greater.”

Dangers for eagles during the Ukraine invasion 

During the invasion of Ukraine, the GPS-tracked eagles encountered multiple conflict events, including artillery fire, jets, tanks, weaponry, large numbers of soldiers, and displaced civilians. These disturbances caused the eagles to alter their migratory behavior significantly. 

The eagles flew further and less directly to their breeding grounds, adding an average of 85 km to their journey and taking longer to reach their destinations. Females took 246 hours compared to 193 pre-conflict, while males took 181 hours compared to 125 pre-conflict.

“Our findings show how human disturbance can inadvertently impact wildlife. Migratory birds such as greater spotted eagles are drastically declining all over the world and it’s imperative that we better understand and mitigate our effects on these charismatic species,” said senior author Adham Ashton-Butt, a research ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

Important stopover sites for greater spotted eagles

The study found that fewer eagles stopped in Ukraine before reaching their breeding grounds, with only 30% making stopovers in 2022 compared to 90% between 2018-2021. 

Important stopover sites, like those in Ukrainian Polesia, were completely avoided in 2022. The differences in flight speed and migration strategies between males and females could also impact breeding success, especially if one sex is disproportionately affected by the conflict.

Remote tracking of wildlife 

Study co-author Aldina Franco, an ecologist at UEA emphasized the importance of remote tracking technologies for understanding the impact of human activities on wildlife. 

“Remote tracking of wildlife enables researchers to understand the impact of human activities, such as hunting or energy infrastructure, on the environment and wildlife populations. In this case, it is providing insights on how armed conflict events impact animal behavior and migration,” said Franco.

“Collecting this data is limited by the logistical implications of working in these areas and previous research has been limited to resident birds in military training zones. However, our tracking data gives us a unique window into how migrating eagles experience and respond to intense conflict.”

The researchers are using this data to better understand the risks to migratory birds from conflicts and to model other areas that may be at risk. This understanding is crucial as many biodiversity hotspots are located in politically volatile regions. 

More about the greater spotted eagle

The greater spotted eagle, known scientifically as Clanga clanga, is a large bird of prey that belongs to the Accipitridae family. It’s often confused with the lesser spotted eagle, but it can be distinguished by its larger size and slightly darker plumage. This eagle has a wingspan of about 150 to 180 centimeters and features dark brown feathers with lighter spots, particularly visible in younger birds.

Native to Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, the greater spotted eagle migrates to warmer regions such as the Middle East and Africa during the winter. Its habitat typically includes large, open landscapes such as wetlands and marshy areas where it can find its prey, which mainly consists of small mammals and other birds.

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, highlights the wide-ranging impacts of human conflicts on wildlife and underscores the need for more detailed research to mitigate these effects and protect endangered species like the greater spotted eagle.


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