Young osprey grow fast: within 30 days of hatching, they’re already at three-quarters of their adult weight. Both parents help raise the chicks and feed them until they learn to fly.
The parents alternate taking trips to the Clark Fork River to catch fish for their young, always returning quickly to feed the hungry chicks. However, their return was interrupted one day last week when a group of researchers fetched three young osprey from the nest adjacent to Ogren-Allegiance Park, home of the baseball team’s aptly named mascot, Ollie Osprey.
Kids, teachers from across the country and other community members watched as Erick Greene, an ecologist and osprey expert at the University of Montana, climbed into a bucket truck and rose toward the osprey nest.
Greene gently borrowed the young ospreys from the nest as the concerned parents circled overhead. He placed the birds in a plastic box, descended and passed the box off to researchers, who then got to work placing identifying bands on the birds’ legs.
Greene is one of several osprey experts who helped start the Montana Osprey Project, which uses the birds as a way to study the long-term effects of mining on streams, rivers and lakes.
Osprey can help scientists look at heavy metals because every piece of food that the chicks eat comes from within a couple of miles of their nest.
In 2006, Greene teamed up with Rob Domenech, the director of the Raptor View Research Institute, to start the program. Over the years, they brought thousands of students to watch as they banded birds so they could identify and track them and take blood samples to test for the presence of heavy metals like copper, lead and mercury.
Three years ago, Greene decided to take the informal student observation a step further when he and Jenelle Dowling, a researcher and educator at the Montana Natural History Center, developed the Wings Over Water education program, or WoW.
The program centers on environmental STEM curriculum Dowling and Greene developed, which uses osprey as a “hook” to get middle and high school students interested in STEM fields, or science, technology, engineering and math.
“The reason we focused on middle school is that that’s the age where students, especially girls, stop showing interest in science,” Greene said. “We’re trying to focus on this really important age where a lot of kids are at risk of dropping out of science.”
The curriculum doesn’t just focus on osprey. It teaches students about satellites and tracking devices, as well as flight mechanics.
“It covers a lot of physics and math about flying in general with planes and birds,” Greene said. “It’s kind of using the fact that ospreys fly as a springboard into lots of other cool things.”
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The program not only allows students and summer campers to watch scientists at work, but also offers summer training for teachers who travel from all over the country to learn how they can bring the year-long curriculum to their schools.
Michele Witkowski was one of about a dozen teachers who watched as Greene and the other researchers banded the birds of prey last Wednesday.
Witkowski traveled all the way from Edison High School in Edison, New Jersey. Although the Clark Fork doesn’t run through New Jersey, there are other water sources.
“The cool thing about ospreys is that you can just add water and you’ve got ospreys,” Greene said. “They occur on every continent except Antarctica.”
Witkowski said there are osprey in south Jersey, and she hopes the week she spends with the WoW program will help inform her of lessons as a ninth- and tenth-grade biology teacher.
“We learned about all the special features that ospreys have developed to be able to hunt and live the way we do, so being able to use that to teach evolution, I think, is really cool,” she said.
For as vast as the osprey habitat is, the community studying them is relatively small.
Domenech graduated from Edison High School where Witkowski teaches. He asked if she’d be able to get him in touch with his high school science teacher; he wanted to thank his teacher for ultimately leading him to his work studying birds of prey, now 2,000 miles away from Edison.
Greene said interest in the WoW program has exploded, and to date, the Montana Osprey Project has banded more than 450 osprey.
Domenech is glad that interest in the WoW program and Osprey Project is growing because researchers need help spotting birds they’ve banded over the years.
Although the researchers have banded more than 450 birds, Domenech said they have less than 10 breeding records where the birds go from nestling to nestler.
Domenech said anyone can help if they spot a band on an osprey’s leg by contacting Raptor View Research by phone at 406-258-6813 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.