Hacking Techniques Improve Health and Nutritional Status of Nestling White-tailed Eagles

Miguel Ferrer, Rhian Evans, Joanna Hedley, Simon Hollamby, Anna Meredith, Virginia Morandini, Owen Selly, Claire Smith, D. Philip Whitfield

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Birds of prey frequently feature in reintroductions and the hacking technique is typically used. Hacking involves removing large nestlings from donor populations, transferring them to captivity, feeding them ad libitum. Potentially, via the hacking method, stress of captivity and disruption of parental feeding may be detrimental. Alternatively, provision of ad libitum food may be advantageous. Although hacking has underpinned reintroduction project successes there has been no research on how the method may affect the health and nutritional status of translocated birds during captivity. We compared blood chemistry data from 55 young White-tailed Eagles, translocated from Norway as part of the species’ reintroduction to Scotland, from sampling soon after arriving in captivity and again (≈ 42 d later) before their release. Numerous significant differences between first and second samples were found, but no significant interactions showed that sexes responded similarly to captivity. According to hematological and biochemical metrics, individuals showed several changes during captivity, including in red blood cell parameters, plasma proteins and white cellular parameters related to the immune system, that indicated improved health status. Captivity with ad libitum food was associated with decreased urea and uric acid values: high values can indicate nutritional stress. Urea values became more normally distributed before release, indicating that ad libitum food had reduced nutritional differences between early nestlings in the season and later ones. Despite plentiful food, both sexes lost body mass before release, suggesting an inherent physiological mechanism to improve flight performance in fledglings. We conclude that hacking improved the health and nutritional status of released eagles which is likely to enable birds to cope with greater costs of exploratory behavior which they may require in reintroduction projects. In this context, we note the absence of survival differences between hacked and wild raptors in previous research.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere9776
Pages (from-to)1-9
Number of pages9
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number2
Early online date9 Feb 2023
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2023

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • blood parameters
  • hatching date
  • plasma biochemistry
  • hematology
  • urea
  • cholesterol
  • free-living raptor


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