THIS COMMENTARY WAS BROADCAST ON NPR’S ALL THINGS CONSIDERED ON AUGUST 7, 2006:
I have been watching the ospreys from my window overlooking the Chesapeake Bay…watching them arrive in the early spring, hatch their young, conduct flight training and prepare to head south again. They provide great entertainment and a natural calendar of the seasons. Better yet, they are an environmental success story, proving that sometimes, against the odds, people can fix what they carelessly imperil in the first place.
The osprey is a splendid bird, white on the bottom, brown on top, with a sharply hooked beak and a wingspan of about five feet. Its spiked talons are perfectly designed to spear fish.
Unlike fickle humans, ospreys mate for life. But like humans who can afford it, they spend the winter in the Caribbean and further south. They come north to the Chesapeake for romance and parenthood.
These undocumented migrants usually arrive in the second week of March and immediately begin building their nests on dead trees or navigational markers – anything that stands out over the water. Creatures of inflexible habit, the same pair will return to their old nesting site year after year.
By late spring, the pair outside my window had hatched two offspring. They are diligent, protective parents, delivering fish to their young ones in the nest and screeching angrily at me when I pass too close in my motorboat. By late July, the chicks were almost the size of the adults and their survival lessons got underway.
With their parents circling nearby, the younger ospreys teetered on the edge of the nest and then, hesitantly, took their first flight, dipping dangerously towards the water for a second or two, then catching on and soaring.
Like student pilots, they practiced touch-and-goes on the water, dragging their talons briefly along the surface. When it was really hot the other day, the chicks took turns diving into the water, splashing and cooling off and then, after a prolonged struggle that frankly scared me, taking off again, shaking the water from their wings. Just this morning, I watched as one of the parents dive-bombed a great blue heron that dared to intrude into the same fishing grounds.
In another month or so, the parents will head south, leaving the chicks to follow. One day in the early fall, the younger birds will be gone too, heading some 3,000 miles to their winter playground.
In the 1960’s, if you lived on the Chesapeake, you saw fewer and fewer ospreys. Like bald eagles, they had ingested the pesticide DDT and been unable to reproduce. But common sense prevailed and DDT was banned in 1972. Since then, the ospreys have come roaring back.
The birds are everywhere now. If anything, there is an osprey housing shortage around the Chesapeake, with too few choice nesting spots. It is a joy to see them rebound. It suggests that sometimes, people can do the right thing.