The sacred bird
The imperial eagle was considered a sacred bird in Bulgaria because people believed that it chased storm clouds away, saving the harvest. Even today in some parts of the country people believe that if you kill or harm an imperial eagle, evil will come upon people. Its traditional name is ‘cross eagle’ – in flight the white patches on its wings together with the light-coloured head resemble a cross.
The imperial eagle is one of the rarest birds in Bulgaria and in the world. In the past, it was among the most widespread raptors in the country. Today its population numbers only 35 pairs. Most of them are found in Southeastern Bulgaria, with the highest concentration on Sakar Mountain.
Close to people
Imperial eagles prefer hills and plains with a mosaic structure of forests, groups of trees and open spaces – pastures, agricultural land and abandoned land. They nest on tall trees – individual or in groups, – along rivers, often in the immediate vicinity of human settlements, roads or agricultural lands.
The main food source for the imperial eagle in Bulgaria is the hedgehog, followed by sousliks, hare, voles, etc. As an unspecialized raptor it has a diverse diet, including more than 150 species of animals. In winter, corvids and carrion form a larger portion of its diet. It would steal prey from other raptors too. This behaviour is particularly typical for young imperial eagles that do not have enough hunting experience.
Restoration and sustainable management of pastures
In cooperation with farmers we work for the revival of traditional pasture livestock breeding through the creation of herds of livestock, the restoration of tilled pastures and the partial removal of scrub in order to restore the mosaic habitats.
All these actions are aimed at combatting the most serious threat for wildlife and for raptors in particular – the destruction of natural habitats. Many habitats are being reduced in area and fragmented at the same time.
This drastic change is the result of agricultural policies and farming subsidies. Thus, due to omissions and discrepancies in the legislation, vast grassy areas that were used as extensive pastures for more than 20 years, are tilled and turned into arable land, even when the soil and climate are not suited for intensive agriculture.
Safe electricity pylons and poles
In Bulgaria, a great percentage of the power distribution lines pose a risk for birds, for large raptors and white storks in particular. Some of them are true death traps that kill dozens of birds every year. Imperial eagles often perch on electricity pylons and poles, particularly in open spaces without any trees. In some countries they even build their nests on electricity pylons and poles. Unfortunately, the birds cannot tell the difference between safe and unsafe pylons.
Fight against wildlife crimes – fight against poisons
The only team with a specialized dog trained to find poisoned dead animals and baits in Bulgaria is the BSPB’s own anti-poison team. The team started operating in 2016 chiefly in the area of the Eastern Rhodope Mountains and Sakar Mountain but it responds to situations across the country. The task of Bars and his handler Nikolay is to search for carcasses of poisoned animals and for poisoned baits and to alert the respective authorities. After finding a carcass the handler determines what steps to take, as the animal could have died from natural causes. In case it has been poisoned, it must be removed from the wild as soon as possible; samples are sent to a laboratory to establish the cause of death.
The mass use of poisoned baits against predators in the 1950s was one of the reasons for the decline in the numbers of the imperial eagle. Another threat are pigeon keepers that use poisoned baits to eliminate the goshawk and the peregrine falcon – the nemesis of their pigeons. However, the poison can affect any raptor, and all raptors are protected by law. In 2011 one of our satellite-tagged imperial eagles was poisoned in the area of the town of Perushtitsa. The use of poisoned baits is strictly prohibited as it poses a risk not only to domestic animals and wildlife but to humans too. Unfortunately, the use of poisoned baits is still practiced.
The job position ‘nest guard for the imperial eagle’ appeared when we first started our work for the conservation of the species in Bulgaria. Nest guards are necessary because human disturbance often may result in failure of the breeding. Many of the trees with nests in the country are located in open spaces, close to arable lands. The eagles are used to the usual agricultural activities, such as the pasture of domestic herds and the tractor activities in the fields.
On Sakar Mountain there have been observations of a shepherd passing under the nest with their herd without a response from the incubating eagle on the tree. But the appearance of unfamiliar machinery, or of people with unfamiliar behaviour causes the eagles to abandon the nest, for example, a truck with workers, tourists, logging activities in the vicinity of the nest. When left unattended in the nest, the eggs may cool down or warm up too much, or they can be eaten by crows that are used to human presence.
Installing man-made nests
This is one of the most effective measures for the conservation of the imperial eagle, as the construction of a new nest is hard and requires a lot of energy, particularly for young pairs that breed for the first time. Before the installation a suitable tree and territory must be selected. The spot should be far from other pairs’ territories, dangerous power lines and sources of disturbance such as roads; it should provide enough food resources. Ideally, there would have been observations of young wandering birds. The tree needs to be tall and strong, so the pair can safely observe their surroundings and fly off with ease.
The actual installation of a nest takes about a day. The base is constructed in advance – a round shape made of branches that is hoisted up the tree using climbing gear. Once it is on the top of the tree, more branches and twigs are put on the nest so that it becomes sturdy and stable. A pair can use a nest for decades.
So far the BSPB has tagged 28 young birds through the programme for satellite tagging of the imperial eagle. Our aim was to learn more about the biology of the species and to establish the causes for its high mortality rates. Thanks to the satellite telemetry now we know a lot more about the places the eagles live at, about the wandering and migration of the young birds, as well as for the threats and dangers they face along the way.
The transmitters are fitted on the young eagles just before they leave the nest, when they have already reached the size and strength of adult birds. The satellite transmitter is a small device with GPS and an antenna that is fitted on the back of the bird via specially designed straps. It weighs only 70 g so the bird gets used to it and can carry it all its life. The device has a solar panel to charge its battery so it has a long life span.
You can also follow the movement of the eagles on the map of the interactive module for satellite tracking.