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Researchers make worrisome discovery after examining data collected from GPS-tagged eagles: 'Could have longer-term effects'

"We weren't expecting this to happen."

"We weren't expecting this to happen."

Photo Credit: iStock

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has had an unexpected effect on migrating birds, and researchers are concerned it could signal a troubling long-term shift.

What's happening?

The University of East Anglia, the British Trust for Ornithology, and organizations in Estonia and Belarus have been tracking the migratory patterns of greater spotted eagles since 2017 thanks to GPS tags fitted to the birds.

The outbreak of war in Ukraine after Russian forces invaded the country occurred close to the time the eagles would embark on their typical migration route. The researchers studied the GPS data to see whether the conflict was impacting the eagles' journey.

"We weren't expecting this to happen," said Charlie Russell, a doctoral candidate at the University of East Anglia, per The Wildlife Society. "But when we saw the news break out that the conflict was happening in Ukraine and it was timed around when the eagles would be going through their migration, we watched the GPS data to see where they were and whether it would have any impact."

In a study published in Current Biology, it was found that 15 of 18 eagles significantly deviated from their usual route to avoid the fighting, adding around 50 miles to a journey that already comprised 500 miles across Ukraine. One even traveled an extra 155 miles.

Why are longer journeys concerning for eagles?

With a 60% decrease in the number of stopovers that are vital for rest and sustenance, the researchers are concerned about the impact additional work and lack of rest can have on eagles.

"Although all the tracked eagles survived, their arduous journey could have longer-term effects," study co-author Russell said, noting that it could impact breeding periods and decrease prey availability if arrival times are later than usual.

While there were obvious impacts on migratory patterns for this particular group of eagles, scientists are also concerned about greater problems for birds located closer to areas in eastern Ukraine, where the conflict remains intense. 

What can be done to protect eagle migration?

Above all, an end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is essential. In November, the United Nations reported that 10,000 civilians have been killed since Feb. 24, 2022. 

Civilian deaths are unconscionable, but the war is also making it more complicated for the eagles, their life cycles, and the scientists who analyze their migration. 

According to The Wildlife Society, wildlife nongovernmental organizations are being shut down and conservationists jailed by Belarusian forces for suspicions of "extremist activity." 

That will make it much harder to take measures to ensure the eagles' long-term health, which could have significant implications for ecosystems along the birds' route from eastern Africa to Europe.

The Wildlife Society also noted that development work that has destroyed forests and wetlands in Europe is having an impact. In order to not make things worse for the eagles, more care needs to be taken to protect natural areas from being destroyed for construction projects.

The felling of forests will prevent animals such as eagles from accessing food and shelter — and that's in addition to the fact that deforestation means less flora to absorb harmful, polluting gases, including carbon dioxide, which cause rising temperatures by trapping heat in the atmosphere.

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