Drones in effort to understand declining golden eagle populations

drone golden eagle

The population of golden eagles in Utah and across western US states is in decline, and a team of drone-flying humans is endeavoring to learn why that is. The effort particularly seeks to comprehend the reasons behind rising death rates among younger birds of the species.

Partners fly drones to locate remote golden eagle nests

Though thankfully not yet endangered, the protected raptors have experienced drops in their numbers over the past decade. Those have been driven by threats from ever-advancing human presence and activity, as well as disease surges that periodically decimate principal prey like jackrabbits. To gain greater insight into the phenomenon, a public-private partnership is using drones to identify golden eagle nests tucked into sheer cliff faces, then monitor hatchlings for clues behind their diminishing life expectancy.

The collaboration matches conservation group Hawkwatch International with federal, state, and military actors in a collective effort to improve the survival rates of younger birds. After searching known nesting areas, patrols pilot drones up the side of cliffs for visual evidence of golden eagle presence. When those feeds come back positive, teams access the nests in the least dangerous manner possible – usually rappelling down the faces – and bring back any chicks they find. Unfortunately, many of those hatchlings are already dead. Those still alive, however, are given a quick checkup, tagged with a GPS transmitter, then returned to their nest for monitoring.

The drone-GPS operation has been carried out on scores of young golden eagles since it began in 2013, but the data produced hasn’t been very encouraging. Though the species has a relatively long life span – the oldest among them known to have reached 31 years of age – the early months and years are proving critical to its overall survival. The average golden eagle doesn’t start reproducing before five- or six-years old, and many perish before then. Meanwhile, fully half of the nestlings tagged in the surveillance partnership have died within their first 12 months. 

The program, however, doesn’t seek to directly intervene to save younger eagles. Instead it tries to collect data on their behavior, gain insight and experience that will be useful in the future, and propose ways recurring threats to the species can be reduced. And in those aspects, it has been fruitful indeed.

Drone flight and monitoring mission proving productive in many ways

The drone-GPS approach has allowed biologists involved to build a widening behavioral database on golden eagles. That effort is focused in western Utah, home to several US military bases.

Searching for golden eagle nests with drones in those areas helps hone the piloting skills of soldiers training to fly the craft in official defense capacities. Similarly, the often challenging effort to use satellite and other tech to closely monitor fast and wide-ranging birds of prey turns out to be excellent practice for soldiers learning to tracking enemy combatants and vehicles. 

All that has translated into a win-win outcome for the various partners. Their work has allowed members to interact with human actors in the area – including energy companies, mine operators, and other military units – and agree on steps to decrease human contact with and threats to the birds as much as possible. And, in addition to the drone training and GPS tracking of golden eagles it has provided participating soldiers, the Utah nesting surveillance and data collection project won the 2020 Resource Conservation and Resiliency Project of the Year from the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program. 

That’s some pretty high drone flying that members hope may soon give rise to renewed growth in golden eagle populations.

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