A new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances has revealed an unexpected aspect of Golden Eagle migration in North America.
Migration is tough, and birds do everything they can to optimise it. It was therefore a surprise when new research found that older, more experienced Golden Eagles actually migrate in poorer weather conditions and cover less ground than their younger counterparts. However, it appears that they do it for a reason — they're timing their efforts purely around raising the next generation.
The team studied GPS telemetry tracks to evaluate the migratory performance of almost 90 Golden Eagles in eastern North America and determine how performance related to season, age, and weather. Unsurprisingly, eagles flew faster and farther when they had strong tailwinds and thermals to help them along. What was counter-intuitive, however, was that older eagles did not cover more ground than younger eagles despite their greater experience. Instead, older eagles migrated in poorer weather conditions and travelled more slowly.
The researchers presumed this is because older birds face different pressures than younger birds. Even if the weather is bad and will slow them down, they need to start heading north earlier than young birds that aren't breeding, because they have to get back to their breeding grounds in time to reclaim their territories and start nesting. Todd Katzner, one of the scientists involved in the research, explained: — Younger eagles just need to survive the summer, so they can be choosy about when they travel north and only migrate when conditions are really ideal for fast soaring flight."
A satellite-tagged Golden Eagle (Photo: Paul Fusco/The Auk)
Lead author Adrian Rus, who worked on the study as an undergraduate, enjoyed the challenges involved in analysing the migration data. He said: — The best part about working on this project was using specialised software to visualise the Golden Eagle migrations and being able to pair it with meteorological data to answer my biological questions. As a result, the project greatly improved my geospatial and statistical analysis skills and was instrumental my current graduate research in animal movement ecology."
Oklahoma University's Jeff Kelly, an expert on avian migration, added: "[The research provides] an unusual demonstration of the interaction between migration experience and seasonal environments. It is likely that the migration experience that older birds have enables them to extend their summer season through early spring and late autumn migration despite declining atmospheric conditions. [The researchers'] demonstration of this insight into the interaction between age and the migratory environment expands our thinking about the life history trade-offs that occur across the annual cycle of migrants."
Rus A I, Duerr A E, Miller T A, Belthoff J R & Katzner T E. 2017. Counterintuitive roles of experience and weather on migratory performance. The Auk: July 2017, Vol 134, No 3, pp 485-497, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1642/AUK-16-147.1