These Migrating Eagles Accidentally Racked Up Enormous Phone Bill

A Steppe Eagle over India. (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman, Wikimedia Commons)

A Russian research group ran out of money after the eagles they tagged flew out of range of mobile service and then to Iran, resulting in tons of expensive text messages, according to a post on the Russian social media service VK.

The trackers sent text messages back to the researchers, allowing them to determine the birds’ locations. The eagles summered in Kazakhstan in a region without mobile service, accumulating many unsent messages. The team expected this and assumed the unsent messages would come through once the birds travelled into a region with service. And indeed, most of the eagles unloaded the text messages cheaply during their migration, passing through Kazakh and Russian regions covered by the researchers’ mobile plan. But a few eagles, notably Min (oh, Min), instead headed into Iran, which was out of range. Months of messages, at four messages per day, were sent at around $US0.77 ($1) per message.

“????‍♀,” the researchers wrote in the post.

The eagles’ 2019 routes (Screenshot: Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network)

The researchers’ budget was “completely exhausted,” they wrote. They started a crowdfunding campaign to top up the birds’ SIM cards and were able to replenish the funds for the year, according to a story from the AFP.

These birds are steppe eagles, raptors with wingspans up to 7 feet that breed across the open savannas, deserts and steppes of Central Asia. They spend the non-breeding season across southern Asia and and Africa. They mainly eat carrion and are a charismatic species of Asia; they’re even featured on Kazakhstan’s flag. Sadly, they are threatened as countries convert their native habitats to farmland.

The Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network was founded in 2011 to protect threatened Russian species of raptors and owls. Their key species are the saker falcon and steppe eagle, whose ranges have decreased dramatically in the past few decades, though they also study the greater spotted eagle, white-tailed eagle, imperial eagle, and Eurasian eagle-owl. Their efforts include citizen science monitoring as well as banding and GPS tagging.

Sounds to me like Asian telecom companies could band together to create a new, bird-specific phone plan.

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