Birds on a Wire

Sex. Danger. Family values. This backyard soap opera has it all—plus feathers, razor-sharp talons, and a neighborhood obsessed.

    Photo: Corel

SLOUCHING AROUND IN STEEL-SHANKED BOOTS, smoking Luckies, and showing off their tattoos, the guys were built along the heroic lines of NFL players. The chicks were scruffy, infested with bugs, and, for the time being, homeless. This was a critical moment in the lives of these two osprey babies. Because the chicks' parents had nested on a 40-foot power pole, NorthWestern Energy had dispatched four linemen, three supervisors, and a utility-company biologist named Sam Milodragovich to move the ospreys' home to a safer spot.

First a lineman went up in a cherry picker, brought the chicks to the ground in a Bud Light box lined with a cotton shirt, and laid them in the dewy grass. The defenseless and stressed-out nestlings—the one I named Sissy was the size of a large Cornish game hen, her brother, Sonny, the size of a small one—were gulping air. Without their mama to open her six-foot wingspan and shield them from the June sun, they were beginning to overheat.

The cherry picker went up again, and the lineman looped ropes beneath the nest, a bagel-shaped cup four feet across, woven from cottonwood branches and padded with wheatgrass. I looked heavenward and crossed my fingers. Sissy and Sonny's parents were flapping in angry gyres above the abduction, and shrieking with rage. Although they could have attacked, their formidable black talons arching to gouge an eye or rip a jugular, this ape was just too big. I had named Duke and Doreen the summer before, when I'd watched them raise two sons in a massive ponderosa at the edge of the Clark Fork River, which runs along the western boundary of our land, and I felt bad about their anguish.

Just as the nest was lifted from the pole, my neighbor, a sculptor who owns the 12-acre parcel of forest and swamp next to ours, appeared. She looked down at the chicks and up at their parents, and burst into tears. But, as Milodragovich explained, the utility had no choice—the nest couldn't stay where it was, even if moving it meant wrecking it, then rebuilding it as best they could.

Like many osprey couples along the Clark Fork here in western Montana, where logging and development have deprived these melodramatic birds of the old-growth pines they prefer, Duke and Doreen had built on a feeder pole radiating wires in four directions. It was highly likely that when it rained, electricity would arc from the wires and into the wet nest, broasting the birds, shutting off the juice to all the houses in this backwater, a three-hour float from Missoula, and maybe starting a ground fire. Besides that, utilities are required by federal and state laws to alter distribution equipment that threatens to fry raptors.

So the company's soldiers planted a 45-foot pole with a four-foot wooden platform on top to anchor the nest, and a nine-foot crossbeam jutting out from under the platform. This way Duke and Doreen would have a place to take off and land when Sonny and Sissy got rambunctious a month down the road.

Looking at these beleaguered chicks, I couldn't imagine they'd last long enough to learn how to fly. But I'm one of those bleeding hearts who believes that nature disturbed is nature ruined. Concerned, I began a reconnaissance of this bird family that would become a consuming preoccupation. For me, a long summer of fretting, hand-wringing, and lessons learned had just begun.

Lesson number one was this: Contrary to rural legend, ruthless hunters such as ospreys don't abandon their young just because some guy in a hard hat touched them—no birds do, for that matter. After all, Pandion haliaetus, bearing the genes of predatory dinosaurs, has thrived virtually unchanged for 15 million years, becoming the planet's ultimate airborne angler and colonizing six continents. As recently as a million years ago (or maybe last year), the ancestor of the hard hat was eating things he found in his ear.

WHILE MILODRAGOVICH cooled the chicks by sprinkling water on their pinfeathered backs, which bore the pale tan stripe of the immature osprey, one of the linemen knelt down to fan them tenderly with the morning news.

"Man, ain't that the life," he said.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"The dad, their old man?" he said, pointing up at Duke. Like most osprey males, Duke was smaller than his mate, and his gleaming white throat didn't bear the necklace of spots displayed by the female. "All this fucking guy does all day is lay around and fish."

The nest arrived intact at its new location—next to the road, and 30 feet away from the old pole—without shedding more than a twig. The bucket of the cherry picker came down, and Sonny and Sissy went back up. Although ospreys seek homes on the highest point around, they sometimes build backup nests, the equivalent of a cabin at the lake. So the last chore for NorthWestern Energy was to bolt a PVC pipe to the top of the crossbeams on the old pole so the birds couldn't build there again.

As the convoy of vehicles retreated down our lane, I withdrew to my front pasture, across from the platform. Within seconds Duke and Doreen were hovering over the nest and their craning chicks and, with a palpable sense of relief, settling in for a long day in their new digs.

At midnight a ferocious thunderstorm blew in. Clara, our border collie, cowered at my feet as I stepped onto our front porch to see what I could see, certain that the gale would blow the ospreys away. The wind was driving the rain at acute angles, and the windows were shuddering from the thunder. But there, illuminated in a strobe of lightning, was the nest, the white crown of Doreen's head just visible. By morning, Duke and Doreen were busy feeding and shading their kids, as if the night before had just been a scary dream.

Lesson number two: Besides nest robbers such as the great horned owl and the raven, and a couple of egg-sucking varmints like the raccoon, there isn't much in nature that ospreys fear. The most serious threat to the species was wrought by the hand of man. Before organochlorine insecticides like DDT were banned in the U.S., in 1972, in part because they cause thinning and eventual rupture in the shells of their eggs, ospreys and other raptors such as the peregrine falcon were surely headed in the direction of zero. But now, on any summer day, you can count all sorts of busy, occupied nests when you float from our place 20 miles downstream to the Alberton Gorge, the Clark Fork's Class III whitewater. The bird is again such a major player in these parts that the local rookie-league baseball team, affiliated with the Arizona Diamondbacks, named itself the Missoula Osprey. ("So much fun," the franchise promises, "you'll drop your fish.") The 2,000 or so fans who show up for big games stomp, shriek, and flap as one during the traditional Osprey Dance.

Still, I fretted about something I'd learned about Sonny. Being the second-born and the smallest, when the pecking orders were handed out, Sonny got hosed. He wasn't in as much danger as if he'd been hatched last into the more common osprey brood of three chicks, but as the smallest sibling he ran a risk of starving to death, or being pushed out of the nest by Sissy. This is because Duke, who helped Doreen incubate the eggs and who would do the grocery shopping until the kids could fish for themselves in August, would feed himself first, then Doreen, who would eat her fill before tearing off any remaining shards of sucker, bull trout, or whitefish for Sissy. Sonny would eat last, and for him the pickings would be slim.

Although I understood that this strategy increased the chances that at least one of the chicks would fledge—that is, grow up strong enough to fly—the working-class chip on my shoulder that had always compelled me to wallow in inequities was now bidding me to side with the underbird. But really, the whole family had vexed me from the moment Duke and Doreen began building this new nest, one stick at a time ferried to the top of that power pole. Why didn't they just return to the perfectly good crib they'd built the season before? After all, it was right next to the water and all those tasty denizens within, and a quarter-mile removed from the county lane, with its confusion of traffic. Had the birds gone nuts?

Probably not, Milodragovich told me. The old nest might be too buggy. Or maybe, because the meandering river had undercut the bank below their old ponderosa, Duke and Doreen sensed that the tree was no longer safe. Most likely, he said, other birds had snatched up all the high-rise apartments in old-growth trees along the river. So why a power pole by the road? Well, why not? Ospreys are successful worldwide partly because they readily adjust to the noisy affairs of humans. When the baseball team began building what will be its new ballpark, in downtown Missoula, and opponents of the edifice pointed with self-satisfied irony to a pair of active osprey nests less than a thousand feet from what will be home plate, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist named Rob Hazlewood was called in. "If we were to have a problem with these two nests, we'd have to halt construction in all of Missoula," he said, alluding to the heavily nested river corridor that runs through the city.

OSPREYS MIGHT BE tolerant, but they're not compliant. Unlike falcons trained to bring home the bacon, or Challenger the bald eagle, who swoops into Yankee Stadium during the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at big games, ospreys refuse to do tricks. The only interaction I saw between humans and Duke's bunch was the game the birds made of backing their butts to the edge of the nest when a pickup passed underneath so they could rain down ten-foot slurries of white shit. Eee-eee-eee! they cried in glee afterward.

I worried also about the nature of our neighborhood, which is a redneck Shangri-La of big dawgs, trucks with bad mufflers, heavily armed Gomers, and gangs of marauding feral boys with BB guns. Although the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes harming an osprey a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $15,000, I've seen people in these parts fire shotguns at most anything in the air. But this time the neighbors surprised me. As soon as everyone learned that Duke and Doreen were raising babies, people began moving to the porches of their shitboxes after dinner, binoculars trained on the nest, following every osprey move.

And so a sort of peace reigned through June and July as the birds settled into a routine. For a few minutes in the morning, while Duke watched over the nest from a two-wire pole in a nearby hayfield, Doreen flew to the river for her morning constitutional, and then right back, usually lugging a cottonwood stick to add to the nest. (Some venerable nests weigh 500 pounds, and are repositories of crime tape, animal bones, dolls, bicycle chains, and barbed wire, not to mention mounds of fish parts putrefying in the sun. One of the linemen told me that the first time he was ordered up into the cherry picker to relocate an osprey nest, the overpowering smell made him vomit.)

Next, the adults spent several hours preening, debugging, and screeching at other birds to keep their distance. One day, when a turkey vulture appeared far overhead, Duke ran him off, staying on the scavenger's tail till both birds were out of sight. In the afternoons, Duke headed for his favorite perch, on a limb below his old nest, which allowed him to scrutinize the shallow channel below. It usually took him less than an hour to dive-bomb a fish and return to his power pole to eat it, snapping his wings at the squadron of tiny sparrows trying to herd him away from their forest nests in a defensive maneuver called mobbing. While he tore off bits of fish, his family cried pathetically for a bite.

During this ritualized begging, I watched Sissy more than once peck Sonny upside the head, and couldn't help remembering the many times my own beloved sister had kicked my shins bloody in fights over the tetherball. When Sonny finally got to eat, the piece of sushi Doreen offered was puny. But to my relief, both chicks grew so fast I thought they were on steroids. By mid-July they weighed as much as their parents—about three or four pounds.

Finally, on August 3, it was time to learn how to fly. Duke took up position on his power pole. Doreen flew to a pole of her own down the lane, within sight of the chicks, who'd been showing off their wings for a week. Both parents began calling. It was Sissy, of course, who left the nest first, hopping out to sit on the beam NorthWestern Energy had installed, and then leaping into flight. Soon daughter and parents were turning circles far above the nest while Sonny sat—and stared.

At last he decided to make his big move. I assumed he'd fall flat on his face, but he jumped straight up into the morning breeze. He hung there suspended, his wings flexed to three-quarters of their span, and then fully spread as the wind bore him away. He rose with strong, choppy strokes to join his family, as if this was something he'd been doing for years. While they swooped and called to one another, I did a little Osprey Dance to celebrate Sonny's achievement.

Now that the kids could motor, a new routine began to rule the roost. Everyone headed off in the morning to hang out at the river or in a century-old cottonwood on the banks of our swamp. I saw Sissy take her first fish soon after she'd learned to fly, but for weeks I never spotted Sonny even attempt to fish. I suspected that he'd found the nest of another couple and was pretending to be their son. (In places where lots of ospreys live, it's not uncommon for adults to welcome the neighbors' kids, and to share the family's food.)

At dinnertime the ospreys gathered at the nest for conversation and a nosh. Although Sissy was a big girl now and was feeding herself, she also demanded food from her parents, and became irate when they turned any over to Sonny instead. Sometimes he gave in to her insane appetite and surrendered the fish, and sometimes he flew away with it.

By the third week of August I realized that Duke had abandoned his family and was on his way, I hoped, to his wintering grounds on some steamy estuary in Latin America. Doreen left a week later. The adults winter separately, and with luck they would meet back here at the nest in May and do it all over again. For a while the siblings came together at dinner, in a pale reprise of the dramatic and noisy family debates that had now driven the neighbors crazy.

When Sissy left on Labor Day for Panama or Colombia (she'll be back in two years after spending her freshman year abroad), I became strident about the hard knocks Sonny had endured, a way of excusing his lack of ability. But then I saw it—I saw him catch a fish! Sitting on the ponderosa perch that belonged to his old man, he suddenly dived toward the river, slammed into it with outstretched talons, disappeared below the surface, and emerged in an explosion of spray with ... a fingerling. But, hey, friends, this was a fish! Exultant, Sonny flew all over the neighborhood with it, showing off what he'd caught, before settling back onto the nest for a lonely but triumphant bachelor dinner.

A few days later I saw him heading toward Duke's favorite power pole with an enormous sucker, turning it as he flew to make its big-lipped head face forward so that the fish would be more aerodynamic. But then Sonny somehow got his talon stuck inside the rib cage of the fish. He tried to shake it off, but it wouldn't budge. The rest of the morning he flapped from nest to pole to river and back again, trying to rid himself of what was now a loathsome burden.

"Eat it!" I shouted.

And, of course, that's what Sonny did, spending the entire afternoon at lunch. When he finally shook himself free, the skeleton fell to earth, and a magpie carted it away.

As the light turned amber in mid-September and the nights turned crisp in that sublime change of season that makes people wistful, Sonny was still showing up at the nest. The Missoula Osprey had finished their season with the league's fourth-best record, and the rookies had flown home to Caracas and Tokyo. The first ducks and geese were heading south along the flyway. And I was thinking of that Sandy Denny song: "Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving / But how can they know it's time for them to go?"

Apparently, Sonny didn't know.

"Go," I shouted one morning after a storm had turned the sky the color of a bruise. "You can't stay here."

That afternoon I took Clara to the river for a swim. The shadow cast by a chevron of geese passed before us. And then the shadow of Sonny. Although I was glad he was leaving and looked forward to seeing him again in the spring of 2004, I already missed him, and immediately fell into a postpartum funk. Now what would I do with my days?

But here was lesson number three: I might not know how to live, but they do. When it's too hot, they head north; when it's too cold, they head south. And it's the simple things that matter most: family, good food, and flying high.

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