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Young Osprey May Lag Behind Heading South

Dear Bird Folks,

All summer long I’ve been watching an Osprey nest near my house. From what I can tell the parents have successfully raised three young. In August the babies were flying on their own, but they remained around the nest and continued to beg for food. A few weeks ago the adults disappeared but the young birds remained. Now only one youngster can be seen. It sits on or near the nest and continues calling, but the rest of its family has apparently left town. Is this normal? Will it survive? Where did the others go?

– Emily, Marion, MA


Long question, Emily,

I like your question, but because it’s so long I don’t have room to write my usual 600-word inane opening paragraph. I’ll have to start using facts right away and I hate that. Okay, maybe I don’t hate using facts as much as this year’s political ads hate using facts, but I definitely don’t like it.

We all get excited each spring when robins build their nests in the bushes near our kitchen windows. But that excitement doesn’t last long. In a few short weeks the babies hatch, grow feathers and leave the nest, never to return. If you blink you’ll miss their whole nesting period. But with Ospreys you can blink all you want, and even take a nap, because their breeding cycle is way longer than a few weeks – it’s more like four or five months. Adult Ospreys return to New England in early April and after some fancy courting and minor repairs to their nest, they get down to business. The female will lay two or three eggs and then, along with her mate, spend the next five to six weeks incubating those eggs. What a boring job that must be for the adults; they have to sit and do nothing for six weeks. Fortunately, their nests are on high on top of platforms, so at least they are able to enjoy a nice view while they sit there. How’d you like to be an incubating bluebird? They have to stare at the dark walls of a birdhouse 24/7. And what about the robin nesting near the kitchen window? It’s stuck looking at dirty dishes piled up in the sink all day. No wonder it tries to finish nesting so quickly.

After six weeks of incubation the baby Ospreys finally hatch out of their shells, but they have long way to go. They’ll need another two months of constant feeding and attention from their parents before they’ll become strong enough to fly. But even flying babies aren’t capable of fending for themselves. They still need to have food brought to them…much like human toddlers who can’t make their own meals. At two years-old, most kids are able to walk, and probably run a DVD player and download stuff off the computer, but it will be years before they can make their first PB&J.

For six or seven weeks after learning to fly the young birds follow the adults and beg to be fed. Then one day the kids decide that all this silly begging makes them look bad and they start catching fish on their own. Most other birds of prey are taught how to hunt by their parents, but that doesn’t happen with young Ospreys. There are no fishing lessons given by the adults or instruction manuals for the kids to read. They just wake up one day and it all comes to them naturally…much like the two-year-old toddler who innately knows that the best sandwich to make is a PB&J.

By late August it’s time for the adults to head south. The female leaves first. After five months of tending nagging babies she’s had enough. The male stays behind to keep an eye on the kids, but after awhile he can’t take it anymore either, and he also moves out. At this point the young Osprey are on their own and they aren’t happy about it. They call and beg, hoping that someone or something shows up with free food, but the only one they attract is you, Emily. As August turns into September they too get restless and feel the urge to head south. However, they don’t all leave at the same time. Osprey migration is not a family event. The birds don’t all pile into a minivan and head down I-95 together and sing songs and play “I spy with my little eye” (which is too bad for them because it’s a fun game).

Each Osprey nestling leaves when it’s ready. For the most part that means the older and stronger birds head out first. The younger siblings may stay back for a few more days to build up their strength…and courage. Eventually, however, they too make the leap of faith and take the long, scary flight to the wintering grounds. Where are these wintering grounds? Studies have shown that most New England-born Ospreys spend the winter along the coast of northern South America. Because hawks and owls have a varied diet, many of them can handle cold weather. But Ospreys eat nothing but fish, and fish head for deep water when it gets cold. That’s a problem. Ospreys don’t like to dive below the surface because they aren’t able to swim underwater, plus they can’t stand getting water in their ears. It drives them nuts.

I’m pretty sure the lone Osprey you heard calling will be fine, Emily. As soon as it gets up the nerve it too will make the long trip to South America. I know you are worried, but it’s really lucky. By flying to South America this Osprey will miss all the cold and all the snow and most importantly, it will miss all of this year’s political ads. Perhaps, we should all go to South America with it.