MISSOULA — Unique among raptors for their live fish diet in North America, osprey are a familiar sight in Montana, flying over rivers and lakes and standing on their massive nests.
These large birds were once on the verge of vanishing due to pesticides, specifically DDT, from the 1950s to the 1970s. DDT was banned in the U.S in 1972, allowing their numbers to rebound to much healthier populations that we see today.
But the osprey now faces a threat caused by baling twine. Fortunately, other raptors don’t do this, so birds such as bald eagles and hawks don’t bring back the twine.
Katie Steinbrenner and her family have watched an osprey nest in their backyard since the mom and dad first started on the nest.
“We have only really fallen in love with the osprey in our backyard because they are like pets to us for like five months out of the year.”
They got to watch right from their kitchen window an osprey chick grow as the months went by.
“We tracked it through the whole egg process, through them getting hatched, and them feeding it, through flying lessons,” Steinbrenner said.
But something didn’t seem right as the chick began to grow: “Then we noticed the little chick was stuck in there. I could see a little bit of baling twine stuck from its wing down to the nest,” Steinbrenner recalled.
She quickly educated herself about the danger of baling twine and enlisted help from Greene and Rob Domenech with the Montana Osprey Project.
“Every time we turn around these days...on social media...I see someone cutting a sea turtle of monofilament or drift nets trapping whales and seals in the aquatic system we hear about it and the terrestrial system we hear about it,” Domenech said.
Greene and Domenech successfully retrieved the chick from the Steinbrenner’s backyard, now nicknamed Macclay.
They took it to Brooke Tanner at Wild Skies Raptor Rehabilitation Center to start the healing process and get it ready to be released back into the wild.
In the meantime, the osprey parents had an empty nest in the Steinbrenner’s backyard, but they would soon regain a chick but not their own.
“We are doing a really interesting experiment. Almost three weeks ago, we went up to band another chick at Kona Bridge. There was this poor chick that was in really bad shape. It had baling twine embedded and almost cut down to the bone,” Greene told MTN News.
“We have never done this in over 600 ospreys banded. With the work with the University of Montana, we have never had to come up with a foster family,” Domenech noted. "So now, fingers crossed, this youngster has a fresh start, and we will bring back their original chick, and the family will grow by one.”
The new chick called Kona was expertly rehabilitated by Tanner and was ready to meet its new parents.
Thanks to the collaborative effort of the Steinbrenner and the owner of Mowzilla, a bucket lift was placed below the nest to bring Kona to its new home, and an anxious family was watching their newest member be placed in the nest.
“There’s Kona, the chick from Kona Bridge,” Greene said. "But we have put it back in another nest.”
Osprey are really good at adopting chicks that are not their own. “We are hoping if it’s like lots of other places is that the mom and dad will just instantly adopt,” Domenech stated.
“We heard these nice low vocalizations, but clearly non-hostile. It was a feel-good sound,” Greene added.
Kona’s adoption was a success, but the race for survival didn’t stop there. Tanner was still working diligently to rehabilitate Macclay, the original chick in that nest. She did this as Greene and Domenech worked tirelessly on calls about other ospreys needing assistance.
A week after Kona’s success, Macclay was ready to be released and join its adopted sibling. Domenech met up with Tanner to prepare it for release and transport it back to Steinbrenner’s nest.
Macclay was processed and banded to identify and keep track of the chick. During this, a call came in about an injured bald eagle.
Efficiently finalizing Macclay’s rehab process, Tanner then switched focus and assessed her newest patient - an emaciated bald eagle with a severe wound on its lower back that went to the bone. She cleaned the wound and gave the mature eagle fluids to start it off on its road to recovery.
Then Domenech was off driving Macclay back to its home. During this drive, another call came in about an injured osprey in which Greene then set out to capture and bring back to Tanner to rehabilitate, adding to the chaos of the day.
Greene then met Domenech back at the Steinbrenner's, each with an osprey in their vehicle -- one to be released and rehabilitated.
Tanner’s incredible work allowed Macclay to be strong enough to fly right out of its crate.
But as the second chick was released, a new long thread of baling twine hung from the nest, a constant reminder of the hardships the osprey face daily.
Greene had a great visual reminder of the dangers of baling twine.
“This is from one osprey nest. It keeps going and going and going,” he explained. “This is pretty scary. Ospreys, for some reason, really love baling twine.”
The enormous piece of baling twine was stretched out and was nearly a mile long, and that was from just one osprey nest. “So, you can see this is a huge issue,” Greene said
Most farmers and ranchers are really good at cleaning twine up, but all it can take is one strand, and it can kill an osprey.
“Please, if you’ve got hay and you are feeding horses or cows, make sure you pick up your baling twine because it’s a real problem for our ospreys here,” Greene said.