Interview with Vitaly Vetrov about the Eastern Imperial Eagle in Ukraine

Date of the interview: 12 June 2011

In this interview Vitaly Vetrov talks about biology and conservation of the Eastern Imperial Eagle in Ukraine.
Vilaly is involved in several long term scientific projects including about birds or prey, eagle owls and others. He is the author of more than 80 publications and his study results were reported on more than 50 conferences. The Eastern Imperial Eagle was and still is one of Vitaly's greatest interest as of an ornithologist as well as of a nature protector.
His colleagues with one accord give him credit for being the best expert in the Eastern Imperial Eagle in Ukraine now.

Russian translation of the interview

The nest where an Imperial Eagle chick was transferred from.

The nest where an Imperial Eagle chick was transferred from, 14.06.2008.
© Yury Milobog

Markus Jais: What is the current population size for the Eastern Imperial Eagle in Ukraine and how has the population developed during the last 20 years?
Vitaly Vetrov: In my recent publications including those for the Red Data Book of Ukraine, I noted that the current number of the Imperial Eagle in Ukraine is at least 100-110 pairs. However, taking into consideration a vast territory of the country and not regular observations as well as enough quantity of poor studied areas and lack of professional ornithologists it can be presumed that the real number of the species lies within 130-150 breeding pairs. Moreover, in the last 20 years there is a clear increasing trend of numbers, and as a consequence, occupation of new territories and new habitats (forest belts) where the Imperial Eagle either never bred or did not breed for a long time.

Markus Jais: How many pairs were successful and how many young have fledged in 2010?
Vitaly Vetrov: Unfortunately, we cannot carry out annual monitoring for the whole Ukrainian population of the Imperial Eagle. The main reason is a large distance among nests and nesting groups, also lack of programmes, funds and enthusiasts. And we, ourselves, study the Imperial Eagle not directly but occasionally when investigating other species or territories. As for the year 2010, I can say that compared to the previous years I visited only 5 nests. One of them had 3 fledglings (Crimea), another – three feathered chicks (Donetsk Region), in three nests of Kharkiv Region there was one feathered chick, one nest was empty and one destroyed. As for other territories I know only scanty data on Dnipropetrovsk Region (one nest was incubated by female, but its further fortune is unknown), Crimea (other two nests: one was being built, other incubated by female, but their further fortune is unknown), Kharkiv Region (at least 5 nests but I don’t know about their fortune).

 The eagle chick was ringed before the transfer by Vitaly Vetrov.

The eagle chick was ringed before the transfer by Vitaly Vetrov, 16.06.2008.
© Yury Milobog

Markus Jais: What is the average breeding success over the last years?
Vitaly Vetrov: It is hard to estimate breeding success because there are no observations for individual breeding pairs of the Imperial Eagle. We visit only some nests, mainly only once and in different periods of time. Most frequently we see 1-2 fledglings.

Markus Jais: How often do 2 or 3 young fledge and what circumstances do favor successful broods with 2 or 3 fledged young?
Vitaly Vetrov: Quite often we see in nests 2 feathered fledglings. Usually we do not visit nests after chicks left them, that is why I cannot judge about fledglings. In nests or near the nests I saw 3 chicks only 4 times for the whole period of observations, and three times of these were in the last five years. Usually 2-3 chicks occur in nests of old pairs which breed in the same nests for many years. But exceptions also happen. For instance, in one of the nests in the forest belt (Kharkiv Region) a pair had one fledgling in a very small nest. Next year there were 3 chicks in this nest though it did not enlarge in size. Along with it, another pair in the same area had only one chick in a large many years old nest. Another pair (with a female not in her last plumage and obviously breeding for the first time) had two feathered chicks. However, to my opinion, 2-3 fledglings are more frequent phenomenon for old pairs in the areas abundant with food.

The same chick in a new nest, 16.06.2008

The same chick in a new nest, 16.06.2008.
© Yury Milobog

Markus Jais: How does electrocution affect the Eastern Imperial Eagle in Ukraine and does this have a different effect on juvenile, immature or female birds?
Vitaly Vetrov: Without doubts the threat of electrocution for the Imperial Eagle in Ukraine does exist, but we have too few data on these accidents. I can only give an example when under the pole of low-voltage power line in the Crimea in spring of 2010 Sergey Domashevsky and I saw remains of the dead young of the Imperial Eagle which probably died in autumn of the previous year.

Markus Jais: What other threats are there to the Eastern Imperial Eagle in Ukraine?
Vitaly Vetrov: Main threats for the Imperial Eagle in Ukraine for the last time are first of all illegal taking of chicks from the nests (private zoos, photographers). According to inquiry data, in some years from nests, chiefly in the south of the country, are taken at least 20 chicks. An important factor is illegal hunting where the Imperial Eagles are sometimes accidentally shot. Undoubtedly, purposeful shooting of some birds by pigeon keepers or foresters also happen. There are also other factors but in my point of view they are less important.

The same chicks before leaving the nest, 27.07.2008

The same chicks before leaving the nest, 27.07.2008.
© Yury Milobog

Markus Jais: Does this also affect other species, for example Saker Falcons and White-tailed Eagles?
Vitaly Vetrov: The Imperial Eagle is not the brightest example there. The Saker Falcons (more often fledglings) are taken from the nests in even more high numbers. Not less Buzzards and Goshawks (but those are common species). Many various raptors are shot by hunters. As for the White-tailed Eagles, it is not a leading species in this case, because it is cautious and has hardly accessible nests. Though, compared to the Imperial Eagle, the White-tailed Eagle is more frequently shot in Ukraine, since it is more numerous at the expense of migratory and wintering birds.

Markus Jais: What is the main prey for Eastern Imperial Eagles in Ukraine?
Vitaly Vetrov: Earlier, the main prey for the Imperial Eagle in Ukraine was souslik. Now, after the everywhere decline in numbers of these animals, the first place in the eagle’s diet, probably, take birds of average size (rooks, partridges, etc.), and among the mammals – the mole rat, though in places sousliks continue to play an important role in the diet of the Imperial Eagle.

Markus Jais: Is there enough prey for the eagles? How does intensification of agriculture affect prey species and therefore the eagles?
Vitaly Vetrov: I think, yes. Especially it is seen when observing pairs which breed in the forest-steppe zone where, undoubtedly, sousliks previously were the main prey for the Imperial Eagle. In the steppe zone diversity of prey is richer. As for agriculture, now there is no intensification. On the contrary, more and more fields are excluded from crop rotation. Fertilizers, weed and pest-killer chemicals are less used. All this favour higher survival of prey and, as a consequence, it is also better for the Imperial Eagle.

3 Imperial Eagle chicks in a nest, Donetsk Region

3 Imperial Eagle chicks in a nest, Donetsk Region, 20.06.2009
© Vitaly Vetrov

Markus Jais: In some European countries, lack of large and stable trees for building nests is a problem? How is the situation in Ukraine?
Vitaly Vetrov: In Ukraine the Imperial Eagle does not breed yet in the way similar to a number of European countries (on solitary high trees in agrocoenosis). That is why this problem is not burning for Ukraine. Though, in some areas, presence of pine plantations with high trunks could contribute to increase of the species numbers.

Markus Jais: What is known about the movement of the Eastern Imperial Eagles breeding in Ukraine?
Vitaly Vetrov: About migratory movements of the Imperial Eagles breeding in our country nothing is known, except for the fact they migrate southward, and in winter in small numbers they occur in the Crimea. I would like to express hope that in next years Ukraine will take part in joint programs with European countries on satellite tracking of the Imperial Eagles for the purpose to indentify their flyways. By now, in this direction we only took the first step for the Saker Falcon.

Markus Jais: Are there birds from other countries who spend the winter in Ukraine?
Vitaly Vetrov: About wintering in Ukraine of the Imperial Eagles, breeding is other countries, also nothing is known.

3 chick in the same nest, but a year later, 28.06.2010

3 chick in the same nest, but a year later, 28.06.2010
© Vitaly Vetrov

Markus Jais: Is the competition with other raptors like Golden or White-tailed Eagles?
Vitaly Vetrov: In our country there is no competition of the Imperial Eagle with other large birds of prey neither in diet nor in breeding. The Golden Eagle is very rare in Ukraine, and breeds only in the Carpathians where the Imperial Eagle does not occur. And the White-tailed Eagle breeds chiefly in other habitats and has other range of diet. Some competition with other birds of prey can be only on small colonies of sousliks, since it is known that this rodent is a favourite prey for many species of raptors.

Markus Jais: Are there any conservation programs for the Eastern Imperial Eagle in the Ukraine?
Vitaly Vetrov: Given that the Imperial Eagle is a globally threatened species in Europe, the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds in 1996 took part in the international programme of the inventory of the species. That time I was a leader of the Ukrainian part of the project, planned for two years, and took part in the Russian part of this programme. Then we did several expeditions over the territory of Ukraine, that allowed to reveal new breeding areas, establish numbers in several regions. However, the programme was uncompleted because of lack of funds for the next year. Later, in the first half of 2000s I two times submitted to the Society for the Protection of Birds projects to continue the inventory of the Imperial Eagle and its conservation but in spite of availability of funds for this programme the work remained unfinished. Further expeditions to some Ukrainian regions aimed at searching for new breeding sites of the Imperial Eagle were done only within my personal dissertation theme (PhD theses).

Eastern Imperial Eagle chick portrait

Eastern Imperial Eagle chick portrait
© Vitaly Vetrov

Markus Jais: What should the Government and the public do to make sure the Eastern Imperial Eagle has a future in Ukraine?
Vitaly Vetrov: It should be noted that at present the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds has compiled Action Plan on conservation the Imperial Eagle in Ukraine, but it is not realized in practice. There is no support from the government or from general public in this direction (and not only for the protection of the Imperial Eagle).

Markus Jais: How can people, for example bird watchers, help the Eastern Imperial Eagle?
Vitaly Vetrov: Recently our colleagues ornithologists found several breeding sites of the Imperial Eagle in the steppe Zone of Ukraine which made it possible for us to update the species numbers in some regions. But no help to protect these nests was rendered and almost all of them were later ravaged by poachers. Generally it can be said that in Ukraine there is no protection for the Imperial Eagle’s nests and breeding sites. As the practice showed the best survived pairs are those which are not known to anybody. Unfortunately, over the last years the number of people which are interested in the Imperial Eagle for illegal trade, mainly for keeping in private zoos of for taking pictures in recreation zones increased. According to available data, in some years, predominately in the south of the country, up to 15-20 chicks of the Imperial Eagle are taken from their nests. We took attempts to involve TV, wrote letter to the Ministry of Autonomous Republic of the Crimea but it had only temporary effect and, generally, did not solve the problem.  

A new nest of the Imperial Eagle on a power line pylon, 02.06.2011

A new nest of the Imperial Eagle on a power line pylon, 02.06.2011
© Vitaly Vetrov

Markus Jais: What is known about the Steppe Eagle in Ukraine?
Vitaly Vetrov: The Steppe Eagle in Ukraine disappeared as a breeding species in the early 1980s. Now, the closest breeding sites of this bird are located in Russia in the Don and Volga interfluve. And nowadays this population is on the edge of vanishing because of degradation of pastures and depression of sousliks being their main prey. More stable populations of the Steppe Eagles are located in the Caspian area but it is also far from Ukraine. Thus, breeding of the Steppe Eagle is hardly possible in the country in the short run. At present this eagle is sometimes recorded as an accidental species, mainly during migrations (Crimea, Luhansk Region).

Markus Jais: What was your most amazing experience with Eastern Imperial Eagles?
Vitaly Vetrov: Since the year 1986 when I found the first nest of the Imperial Eagle in Kharkiv Region, I walked and rode many kilometers searching for this eagle’s nests. During this period I was a leader and participant of several projects on this species, took part in many conferences and among them in international where I did reports about our Imperial Eagles, wrote papers including those for the last two editions of the Red Data Book of Ukraine. Since then many nests were found and many impressions gained. But I can remember a case in Kharkiv Region where Yury Milobog and I several years ago investigated steppe gullies looking for new breeding sites of the eagles. Having visited one of already known nests in the forest belt we were surprised seeing in it 3 large downy chicks. The nesting tree was rather thin and strongly inclined, along with it the nest was of very small size. We made a decision to transfer one chick into another nest of the Imperial Eagle located 50 km apart which had only one chick of the same age. It was nice to see when ringing chicks one month later that all of them survived. The first nest was half-destroyed by the remained chicks, so the presence of the third was superfluous, it could have fallen from the nest and died. In addition, it turned out that these chicks were finally fed by only one adult bird since the male was discovered dead under a nearby tree. Probably he flew back to the nest being wounded and died there (the diet of this pair included chickens). It is interesting that next year the female found a new male, and in late April incubated the clutch in the same nest. Unfortunately, during checking in July we saw this nest abandoned by an unknown reason, adult birds were also not recorded. I can add that this nest was found in 2006 in the course of joint expedition over the territory of Ukraine with Hungarian colleagues.

Markus Jais: Vitaly, thank you very much for the interview.

More information

More information about Vitaly Vetrov and his work

Ukrainian Birds of Prey Research Centre

Russian translation of the interview