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Still a threatened species in Illinois, the osprey has made a comeback in Cook County

Friday, August 06, 2021
Chicago Tribune
by Morgan Greene

It’s not too late to see an osprey flying overhead or swooping down to seize a writhing fish out of water — both remarkable sights in Cook County considering the birds not long ago essentially disappeared from Illinois.

The dark-topped, white-bellied raptors — still a threatened species in the state — have made a comeback. Their return is credited to an environmental cleanup that includes the 1972 ban of the pesticide DDT, and to human help: For decades, platforms on top of towering poles have been added throughout the Cook County Forest Preserve District to create a safer version of the birds’ preferred treetop nesting habitat.

This season, 14 nesting pairs settled down on platforms as high as 90 feet throughout the county; 11 of those pairs survived the summer, after tornadoes ripped through the suburbs.

The Forest Preserves team tries to band young ospreys so the birds can be recognized if they’re lucky enough to touch down in following years. Local nests usually turn up one to three young birds, said Chris Anchor, a longtime biologist with the Forest Preserves. But peering into a nest is always a surprise.

Earlier this summer, on a cool morning at Penny Road Pond in Barrington, one young osprey stared ahead with marble-ball eyes framed by a dark mask and light streaks of white and copper. The bird was scooped up from a crown of thick branches and brought down for a quick physical so scientists could return to the lab and check for disease, as well as markers that signal environmental conditions.

The young birds tend to go limp when grabbed, Anchor said, while the adults circled overhead, sometimes with piercing calls. The parents fed this particular osprey well, he said.

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Later, at Busse Woods in the Forest Preserves of Cook County, a few ospreys flew high above the swarms of mosquitoes below, but with the young osprey in the nest deemed a bit too old — and too likely to be spooked out of the nest — banding was called off.

Balancing the demands of the natural world is part of the annual process, Anchor said.

Although the loss of three nests due to severe storms was a significant blow for the birds, overall, there’s been a slow and steady increase of nesting pairs and occupied platforms in recent decades, a story of what environmental toxins — and their removal — can accomplish.

“It can take a bird that’s basically everywhere and does really great under most circumstances and take it to the brink,” said Doug Stotz, senior conservation ecologist at the Field Museum. “And it also shows that we can change that. That we’ve turned things around for osprey to a tremendous degree.”

Now, the birds are “showing up in all sorts of places,” Stotz said.

Ospreys, skilled fisherman with wingspans reaching 5 feet, are equipped with pads to grip their prey as they plummet toward water. Once they’ve caught a fish, they carry it off headfirst, which makes for a smoother flight to deliver the feast.

Watching an osprey’s descent is still an impressive sight, Stotz said.

“It dips its talons in the water and then bam, picks out a fish,” Stotz said. “It’s just a really cool thing.”

Other hawks also are faring well, Stotz said, due in part to a shifting appreciation for the role the predators play in the ecosystem.

“Cooper’s hawk, when I got to Illinois it was state threatened, and it’s now nesting in people’s backyards,” Stotz said.

The long-term trends for ospreys are promising: Populations increased by about 2.5% a year from 1966 through 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Like bald eagles, the disappearance of ospreys followed the spread of DDT, which thinned the shells of their eggs and made chick survival nearly impossible. From 1952 on, an osprey sighting in Illinois was largely something from fiction.

Then, in 1996, a 60-year-old U.S. merchant marine with a fondness for the raptors received approval from state and federal agencies to put up a pole.

“Believe it or not, the most difficult thing about putting up a 700-pound birdhouse is the paperwork,” a Tribune report said.

The Forest Preserves began to add its own poles and platforms in following years. Similar efforts occurred throughout the state, including a robust one from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and were sometimes assisted by power companies providing the utility poles.

In Cook County, raccoons were especially troublesome for natural nests, Anchor said. He noticed nesting platforms in neighboring states and thought they were a great idea.

“We’ve been putting them up here and there ever since,” Anchor said. “And we’re still putting them up.”

There are now 20 sites throughout the county. To plan for future poles, scientists look for spots where unaccompanied males are hanging out.

“That whole process can be very entertaining,” Anchor said. “We’ve had instances where we’ve put up poles, and before the pole has even been up for a day, it’s already got an osprey in it trying to build a nest, trying to attract a female.”

With banding, biologists can learn about the birds. One finding: The same pairs appear to return to the same poles year after year. Soon, if they haven’t left already, the birds will migrate as far as South America and return to nesting sites starting in spring.

One female, born on a pole in suburban Milwaukee, nested in Barrington for more than a decade. Once a bird makes it through its first year, it might make it past the age of 12, even 15. This was the first summer she didn’t show up.

Another finding: Each pair has its own personality.

“We’ve actually watched females sitting on platforms with a male in attendance, and the male will repeatedly approach the nest and present the female with a stick,” Anchor said. “And if she likes it, she’ll leave it. If she doesn’t like it, she’ll reach down, pick it up, and go to the edge of the platform and drop it.”

Anchor said he hates to be anthropomorphic, but “you feel for the poor guy.”

In some areas, people can approach the birds without issue, while others may result in parental cacophony.

“We’ve had areas where if you come within a half a mile of the pole, both parents are up in the air screaming, and they won’t return to the chicks until you leave,” Anchor said.

Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, watched a chick banding in the Forest Preserves last summer. The osprey father sat with a fish in its talons waiting until the young were safely back in the nest.

Friends of the Chicago River has contributed five nesting platforms since 2015.

Ospreys represent how important each individual piece of an ecosystem can be in aiding the return of some species, Frisbie said. Fish need clean water and suitable habitat, ospreys need fish.

“But if you don’t have the places where they can reproduce, all the other work is almost in vain,” Frisbie said.



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