Long Island Sound Osprey

The mother osprey gently places a piece of menhaden in her chick’s mouth. His sister watches patiently to the side. (Photo: © Lender Mark Seth)

Living on Earth Explorer-in-Residence Mark Seth Lender shares a reflection on how prey availability shapes the lives of young ospreys.

The following season, I found no nest with three chicks. At most, there were two. The one described in this story, a well-established nest that I have observed for a decade, has only hatched two. Another a few miles away had consistently hatched three and sometimes four chicks and all still fledged. There the same, only two chicks.

We immediately turn to the food chain. These Venus figures from the Dordogne caves are voluptuous for a reason. Our species has always known that a reserve of fatty tissue is a necessary prerequisite for fertility. What a bird’s body requires is particular and not necessarily the same. But when it comes to breeding, there are calorie minimums.

Ospreys are obligate carnivores. Here and there other prey will do (the occasional rabbit) but almost all food should come from fish as this is the fish ospreys are equipped to catch. Many things can affect fish populations, including heat (North Atlantic species don’t like it), lack of oxygen due to algal blooms from agricultural runoff and grime from industrial farms, the dumping of toxic chemicals, overfishing by “legal”, i.e. recognized factory ships and by pirate fleets (which governments are well aware of but choose to ignore). This is a global catastrophe and it would be naïve to assume that Long Island Sound somehow escapes its effects.

On the Connecticut coastline, however, ospreys are on the increase. Heroic efforts have been made to protect the small and very important forage fish that sit at the bottom of the food chain and these efforts have paid off. But these are uncertain times. Maybe ospreys feel it too.

Because the truly remarkable part of the story is that a mother osprey, no doubt anxious to make her own way south in her much-needed escape from winter (a clear-eyed osprey season which, in August, is fast approaching), that such a mother would be waiting. That she would revert to her equivalent role of nanny as if her boy was still a baby when in fact the flight was late and he should have been alone in the world. Imagine what it cost him. Also remarkable was the generosity of the sisters in allowing their younger brother to feed themselves while they just watched, despite their own needs and all that they would face on their journey into the Unknown.

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