A Bird’s Tale

An Osprey Education

Posted:  Wednesday, October 4, 2017 - 10:45am
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Humans gave the little osprey chick the name “Bailey.” The bird was the last of the three chicks of the osprey pair that has nested for the last five years on top of a building at Hog Island in Bremen, Maine. A webcam focused on that nest allows people from all over the world to watch in real-time the minute-by-minute life (and sometimes death) of the osprey family. The adult female osprey, known to the webcam watchers as “Rachel,” and her mate, christened “Steve,” had successfully hatched three eggs in the early summer.

Regrettably for them, a great horned owl swooped in over several nights and grabbed two of the chicks. But Rachel successfully fended off the owl when it tried to take Bailey, the third chick. Webcam watchers faithfully observed Bailey, who was growing and strengthening when yet another emergency struck. Wasps had built their own nest in the stick nest of the osprey and for some reason one late summer day they began to attack poor Bailey. A video captured on the webcam shows Bailey trying to scratch at the wasps, which can be heard buzzing loudly. Finally, to escape the wasp attack, Bailey leapt from the nest and attempted to use those growing wings and muscles to glide to the ground.

The Audubon caretakers on Hog Island heard the distress calls of the adult ospreys and came to the rescue, eventually building another platform for Bailey not too far away. Osprey parents Rachel and Steve found Bailey and continued feeding and watching out for the rapidly growing chick.

While the ability to flap the wings and glide is probably an innate behavior in ospreys that requires no learning, the intricacies of finding and catching fish—and avoiding predators like owls and eagles—no doubt does require some intense education. In ospreys, some research has shown that fledglings that begin their early fishing efforts while in the company of siblings tend to become adept at figuring out how to find and capture fish more quickly than individuals like Bailey who is the bird equivalent of an “only child.”

Bailey made it out of the nest in August and was still under observation of the webcam folks. The youngster could be observed perching on various places nearby including the top radio masts of a fishing boat in the harbor. The fledgling continued loudly begging for food from its parents while presumably starting the process of trial and error to become more adept at fishing. Unfortunately, Bailey’s loud begging from the top of an exposed perch now made the bird the target of a local bald eagle. The ever-diligent webcam operators documented Bailey’s rather inept attempts to elude the eagle’s attack, which ended up with the young osprey in the water and paddling toward shore with it wings.

The Audubon folks went out in a boat and retrieved Bailey only to find, later in the day, that the eagle had attacked again, driving Bailey into the water once more. When they picked up Bailey this time they found that the young bird had some puncture wounds from the eagle’s talons. They arranged for the bird to be checked out by some bird rehabilitation experts. While assessing poor Bailey’s wounds they discovered (after x-rays) that Bailey had a broken wing that might have occurred on the jump to evade the hornets!

As of today, we think that Bailey is still under the care of the bird rehabilitators. And we hope that Bailey not only becomes healthy but finds a way to learn all those osprey skills that it takes to survive and thrive!

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” and the just-released “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao.”