Too much of a good thing can be deadly.
An osprey mother found that out Friday when the plastic string she brought to her nest near the corner of Mullan Road and Reserve Street trapped her in its web. The female could extend her wings, but her entangled talons kept her pinned to the nest.
Fortunately, University of Montana biologist Erick Greene was passing by. In the coming week, he and his fellow osprey researchers will be visiting nests throughout the Missoula Valley to band chicks and survey the health of our avian mascot population. He checked on the nest by Daily’s Meats on Friday morning.
“I had my telescope out trying to count chick heads,” Greene said. “I saw her flare her wings and thought things were going OK, but then she flopped back down into the nest.”
Greene realized the osprey was trapped by her own nesting material. He also knew he didn’t have much time. Osprey chicks have been hatching for several days now, and a traumatized mother is a menace to her own brood.
Garden City Tree Service owner Dale Beaver brought his bucket truck on 40 minutes’ notice when Greene asked for help. The two men approached the nest from directly below, doing whatever they could to lower the bird’s stress level. Because what happened next was unavoidably stressful.
As soon as they cleared the nesting platform, Beaver lowered a huge fish net over the osprey and Greene grabbed her. The twine tangle was so tight, he could barely lift her high enough for Beaver to get underneath with a pair of scissors to snip her free. Nevertheless, in about 45 seconds, the rescuers had their victim in hand.
On the ground, Rob Domenech of Raptor View Research waited with a falconer’s hood. Once he slipped the leather cover over the osprey’s head, she settled down. The wad of garbage was as big as a cantaloupe, made of black and red packing twine, bits of sheet plastic and an old wool sock.
In her thrashing to escape, the osprey had broken or mangled several of her tail feathers. Greene could see the cramped leg muscles she’d been unable to unclench for hours or days.
Domenech and his Raptor View partner Adam Shreading laid the bird on a blanket and untangled the trash. Given the rare circumstance of having an adult osprey in the hand, they also attached a pair of leg bands and took a blood sample.
“We can almost never get ahold of the adults,” Greene said. “That’s why we’re always trying to band the chicks. It’s the only time we can get close to them.”
Surprisingly, the female felt plump and looked healthy despite her ordeal. That meant she may not have gone too long without food before being spotted in distress. Nevertheless, one onlooker scooted over to the nearby Albertson’s to buy a fish for her recovery meal.
Greene returned to the bucket truck to further inspect the nest. Two chicks believed to be inside were nowhere to be seen. Unfortunately, the mother probably knocked them out of the nest in her struggles. And a third egg was cold and lifeless – probably neglected in Thursday’s rain.
Despite the loss of this spring’s generation, saving the mother counted as a major win for the city’s osprey flock.
“Any time we can save an adult osprey, especially an adult female, I feel really, really good,” Greene said. “They are worth their weight in gold in terms of their importance for healthy osprey populations.”
The Daily’s Meats nest has been occupied for at least 20 years, according to workers at the plant. But it’s had bad luck lately. Last year, a nesting female electrocuted herself flying into a nearby power line.
The Missoula urban area has 25 to 30 osprey nests with couples each year. Greene and his fellow researchers keep an eye on about 200 nests between Warm Springs and Alberton along the Clark Fork River, as well as several dozen more on the Blackfoot and Bitterroot rivers.
One of those assistants, Dalit Guscio, brought her children to see the rescue. Geffen, 6, and Aviv, 8, watched in amazement as Domenech drew blood from the osprey’s wing, and cheered when she lifted off of his arm and safely flew to the nearby cottonwoods.
They also named the osprey: Ima Mazal. In Hebrew, it means “Lucky Mom.”