July 9, 2009

Eagle study focuses on the bird’s feathers

Catching adult eagles for research is a difficult task, so scientists at Purdue University say they are using eagle feathers to learn more about the birds.

Many birds are small, easy to catch and abundant, Associate Professor Andrew DeWoody, who is leading the study, said. With eagles, the effort can be 100 to 1,000 times greater than catching chickadees.

Not only do eagles, with their sharp talons and beaks, pose a physical threat to the scientists, but the birds can badly injure themselves while resisting capture.

So DeWoody and his colleagues collect the birds' feathers and use the small amount of DNA in them to create a tag that corresponds to a particular bird. The tags can be used to determine population, parentage, roosting patterns, sex ratio and other data.

The studies, funded by The National Geographic Society and the National Birds of Prey Trust, were done in Kazakhstan with imperial eagles, a predator whose population is declining.

DeWoody's research methods are described in a chapter of the Handbook of Nature Conservation: Global and Economic Issues, which was released this week.