Navigating conflict: How the war in Ukraine changed eagle migration patterns

Posted: 29th May 2024

Photo: Viktar Malyshchyc

Polesia, spanning over 18 million hectares across Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, is a crucial refuge for threatened wildlife. The region provides essential ecosystem services such as flood prevention, water supply, and carbon storage. The Polesia project, supported by the Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme, has been working since 2019 to protect and restore this unique landscape. Despite challenges from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the project continues its conservation efforts.  

As part of the project, the team has been monitoring greater spotted eagles, which are listed as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In a new paper published in Current Biology, the team have used tracking data to demonstrate how the war in Ukraine has had an impact on the migration patterns of these charismatic raptors.    

“Armed conflicts can have wide-ranging impacts on the environment, including changes in animal behaviour,” says Charlie Russell of the University of East Anglia, UK. “Our study provides the first quantitative evidence of this, showing how migrating eagles made deviations to avoid conflict events and spent less time refuelling at stopover sites. It also indicates that there are potentially many human activities, beyond wars, that likely change or impact animal behaviour.” 

Researchers from The Estonian University of Life Sciences University, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and their in-country partners started tagging greater spotted eagles that were breeding in Belarusian Polesia in 2017. Although the eagles are no longer found in most of Europe, Polesia remains a stronghold for the species. The goal was to track the raptors and identify important areas that the species relies on to inform future conservation efforts. 

A greater spotted eagle which will have migrated from Europe in Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania. Photo: Daniel Rosengren.

Then, on February 24, 2022, the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine. On March 3, the first of 21 tagged greater spotted eagles crossed into Ukraine on their usual migration. By that time, the conflict had spread from Kyiv and eastern regions to most major cities. 

 “We did not expect to be following these birds as they migrated through an active conflict zone,” Russell says. 

While they may not have expected it, the researchers recognised an opportunity to document the effects of human conflict on wildlife. It’s clear that such human activities must have major impacts, but the effects are usually hard to quantify, especially in conflict zones. 

Using GPS tracking and conflict data, the researchers quantified changes in the eagles’ expected behaviour. In comparison to earlier and more peaceful years, they found that greater spotted eagles used stopover sites less. Stopover sites are essential places to get food, water, and shelter for migrating birds during their long journeys. The eagles also made large deviations from their earlier routes. 

The changes to their migratory behaviour patterns delayed their arrival to the breeding grounds and likely increased the energetic costs to the birds in detrimental ways. Although all  the tagged birds survived, the researchers suspect their experience may continue to affect them into the breeding period and possibly beyond. 

Migratory species can be especially vulnerable to disturbance and change. Photo: Viktar Fenchuck.

“Similar responses have been recorded for birds residing in military training zones, but these new findings that show an impact for migratory species means that disturbance events can have more far-reaching impacts across many more individuals, over greater distances,” says Adham Ashton-Butt of BTO. “The size of the effect on migratory behaviour was also quite large, substantial enough to be detected in a relatively small sample size.” 

 The findings serve as an important reminder that the effects of armed conflicts are wide ranging and stretch beyond the immediate humanitarian crisis, the researchers say. As such, they note, post-conflict recovery also should consider the environmental impact on species and whole ecosystems. The findings also raise important questions about how the conflict in Ukraine—as well as other extreme disturbances caused by humans—may affect many different species, including hundreds of threatened species and millions of migratory birds. 

To find out more about the Polesia restoration landscape, visit their project page. The full paper can be found in Current Biology

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