Open Access Highly Accessed Methodology article

When do young birds disperse? Tests from studies of golden eagles in Scotland

Ewan D Weston1*, D Philip Whitfield2, Justin MJ Travis1 and Xavier Lambin1

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Zoology Building, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen AB24 2TZ, UK

2 Natural Research, Brathens Business Park, Hill of Brathens, Aberdeenshire, Banchory AB31 4BY, UK

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BMC Ecology 2013, 13:42  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-13-42

Published: 6 November 2013



Dispersal comprises three broad stages - departure from the natal or breeding locations, subsequent travel, and settlement. These stages are difficult to measure, and vary considerably between sexes, age classes, individuals and geographically. We used tracking data from 24 golden eagles, fitted with long-lived GPS satellite transmitters as nestlings, which we followed during their first year. We estimated the timing of emigration from natal sites using ten previously published methods. We propose and evaluate two new methods. The first of these uses published ranging distances of parents as a measure of the natal home range, with the requirement that juveniles must exceed it for a minimum of 10 days (a literature-based measure of the maximum time that a juvenile can survive without food from its parents). The second method uses the biggest difference in the proportion of locations inside and outside of the natal home range smoothed over a 30 day period to assign the point of emigration. We used the latter as the standard against which we compared the ten published methods.


The start of golden eagle dispersal occurred from 39 until 250 days after fledging (based on method 12). Previously published methods provided very different estimates of the point of emigration with a general tendency for most to apparently assign it prematurely. By contrast the two methods we proposed provided very similar estimates for the point of emigration that under visual examination appeared to fit the definition of emigration much better.


We have used simple methods to decide when an individual has dispersed - they are rigorous and repeatable. Despite one method requiring much more information, both methods provided robust estimates for when individuals emigrated at the start of natal dispersal. Considerable individual variation in recorded behaviour appears to account for the difficulty capturing the point of emigration and these results demonstrate the potential pitfalls associated with species exhibiting complex dispersal behaviour. We anticipate that coupled with the rapidly increasing availability of tracking data, our new methods will, for at least some species, provide a far simpler and more biologically representative approach to determine the timing of emigration.