The War in Ukraine Has Changed the Migration of Vulnerable Eagle Species

At least 10,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed since Russia invaded the country in 2022, with around double that number injured. More than 10 million Ukrainians also remain internally displaced or outside of the country as refugees as the conflict rages on. It’s not just people who are impacted, though. A new study shows how the war has changed the way birds migrate.

A study recently published in Current Biology followed the migration patterns of 19 tagged greater spotted eagles as they flew over Ukraine in the early days of the conflict, March and April of 2022. The birds had already been part of existing research, so data on their usual migration paths – from wintering grounds in East Africa and southern Europe to southern Belarus for breeding – were available for the prior four years.

Greater spotted eagle soars through air
PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / SHINO JACOB KOOTTANAD. LICENSE: CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

The research showed that the birds deviated from their usual paths and limited their stopovers as they traveled past artillery fire, jets, tanks, and the mass upheaval of civilians and soldiers in Ukraine. This likely impacted their physical fitness as they expended more energy, too, which can make successfully breeding more difficult.

Charlie Russell, the study’s lead author and postgraduate researcher in the School of Environmental Sciences at University of East Anglia, says, “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.

“These types of disturbances can have significant impacts on the behaviour, 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.”

Greater spotted eagle rests on tree branch
PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / J.M. GARG. LICENSE: CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED

The impacts to the tagged eagles included an increase in average distance flown, of more than 50 miles. Males also took an average of 181 hours to get to southern Belarus, compared with 125 hours before that, while females’ travel time increased from 193 hours to 246. Additionally, only six of the 19 birds made stopovers in Ukraine in 2022, compared with 18 of 20 between 2018 and 2021.

This led to later arrival at their breeding grounds, another factor that could impact reproduction in this vulnerable species. At a time when migratory species’ populations continue to fall, the research shows how human conflict can make matters even worse.

Dr. Adham Ashton-Butt, study co-author and senior research ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology, explains, “Our findings show how human disturbance can inadvertently impact wildlife.

Greater spotted eagle spreads wings in sky
PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / CHRISTOPH MONING. LICENSE: CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

“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.”

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