Migrating Eagles Give Side-Eye to War-Torn Ukraine

Study finds greater spotted eagles altered flight paths, curtailed rest stops in Ukraine in 2022
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted May 21, 2024 3:09 PM CDT
Vulnerable Eagles' Latest Hardship: Ukraine War
A greater spotted eagle in flight.   (Wikimedia Commons/Christoph Moning)

Russia's war in Ukraine has had a ripple effect across Europe, including for vulnerable migrating birds that are reportedly flying far out of their usual route to avoid areas of fighting. Researchers have found evidence of greater spotted eagles altering routes across Ukraine to avoid key areas of violence and curtailing or even forgoing rest stops as they head to their breeding grounds. "It's kind of like if you were to run a marathon but you had no water breaks. And at the end, someone asks you to run an extra 7 or 8 miles," Charlie Russell of the University of East Anglia, co-author of the study published Monday in Current Biology, tells the Guardian, noting this likely had a negative effect on the breeding efforts of a large raptor already at high risk of extinction.

Researchers used GPS data from 19 tagged eagles that flew over Ukraine to reach breeding grounds in southern Belarus during March 2022 and April 2022, only weeks after the war began. Females traveled from Greece, while males traveled from East Africa. In comparing the flight paths to 65 migrations logged by 20 birds from 2018 to 2021, researchers discovered the 2022 migrations were longer by both distance (plus 53 miles on average) and time (plus 55 hours on average). One eagle flew an extra 155 miles. Males flew at a lower speed in 2022, as if on guard. But what was perhaps most astonishing was that only 32% of the eagles made a pit stop in Ukraine in 2022, compared with 90% in prior years. Some key refueling spots in Ukraine were avoided completely.

Researchers say the biggest deviations came in areas with heavy military activity. One eagle altered its path after coming within a kilometer of explosions on the outskirts of Kyiv. "These types of disturbances can have significant impacts on the behavior, and potentially fitness, of the eagles," Russell says, per Earth.com. The study notes the delayed arrival at breeding grounds and probable increased energy costs of getting there likely had a detrimental effect and may even "affect the survival chances of any young," per the Guardian. Experts say it's important to understand these and other stresses on vulnerable species. The research "indicates that there are potentially many human activities, beyond wars, that likely change or impact animal behavior," Russell notes, per a release. (More Russia-Ukraine war stories.)

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