By Kate Wasem
Broadcast 10.11 & 10.14.2023
Harriet the Osprey knew what was coming. As soon as the boom lift arrived at the base of her nest, which overlooks the hay barn and riding arena at Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo, Montana, she sprang up and circled overhead, crying calls of alarm. She’s been through this many times over the years, the great annual stealing of her chicks. We know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, but she doesn’t. It can’t be any less distressing, one year to the next.
As I watched Rob Domenech, executive director of the Raptor View Research Institute, and his research biologist Brian Busby carefully load the three chicks onto the lift, and heard Harriet’s chirps of protest from above, I considered the importance of this work. Scientists and researchers depend on banding studies like these to better understand the biology of our bird brethren. Every time a band is spotted and reported, often by birders and non-scientists like me, a new piece is added to the puzzle. Researchers like Rob use this information to learn more about osprey migration, population health, longevity, and sources of mortality.
The three chicks being banded today are only 35 days old, but they’re big, gorgeous, and feisty! Rob and Brian had their work cut out for them just keeping their hands safe from those little blood-thirsty beaks. The chicks’ deep-orange eyes surveyed their new world with wide, unblinking ferocity. Rob expressed admiration for their spirit and pluck—“They’re going to need it,” he said.
Each chick had a turn at the banding station, held snugly in place with one hand while the bands were attached to their legs. First, a metal band, stamped with a unique number, provided by the Bird Banding Laboratory at the U.S. Geological Survey. In addition, the chicks were fitted with a blue plastic band with a two- to three-digit alphanumeric code stamped in large white print, easy to see. These bands can be used to spot a bird from a distance and learn what research program banded them. It’s not as durable as the metal one, but it’s worth its weight in gold for reasons of identification.
As they attached the bands, took feather and blood samples for heavy metal testing, and weighed the chicks, I learned that life as an Osprey is no cake walk. On paper, it looks good—summer in Montana, winter in Mexico, diet of fresh-caught fish. Sounds fantastic. I know a few humans who try to emulate the Osprey lifestyle.
But there’s a different paper, full of statistics on mortality, that tells another story, one closer to the bone. According to Rob, the average survival rate for Osprey chicks during their first year of life is thought to be around 30 percent. Assuming the chicks make it through that initial migration, then they have all the ones after that, over thousands of miles, year upon year. Innumerable dangers await: entanglements with baling twine and fish hooks, collisions with vehicles and power lines, long crossings over open water. Added to this is the fact that many don’t find a mate and begin breeding until they’re four to five years old. So where’s the silver lining?
In less than an hour, all three chicks are safely returned to their nest above the arena. Within minutes, Harriet settles down among them, creating an umbrella over their heads with her outstretched wings, and we all breathe a collective sigh of relief. I hear Rob say: “Harriet here… she’s a real survivor. It takes a lot.”
Can a single bird be a ray of hope for an entire species, I wonder?
Watching Harriet with her chicks fills me with optimism. The statistics may sometimes be bleak, but this Osprey matriarch has returned to this nest every year for more than a decade to raise her brood. Ospreys are an important indicator species, thanks to their specific diet and habitat requirements. By monitoring the health and success of Ospreys, we can monitor the health and success of the greater ecosystem, home to us all.
Raptor View Research Institute is a non-profit research and education organization based in Missoula, Montana. To report any blue color bands seen on Osprey, to check out their other research, or to donate, visit raptorview.org.
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