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University of Montana researchers band osprey chicks Honk, Hoot and Hero

University of Montana researchers band osprey chicks Honk, Hoot and Hero

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LOLO — When the bucket truck lifted a couple of intruders up to the nest with three chicks, Harriet the osprey protested.

She flew up and called out.

The bird even swooped down over the researcher and other invader and dive bombed them.

"Oh, poor thing," said one spectator.

"Sorry, girl," said another.

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Despite the hazing delivered by Harriet, the people in the bucket scooped up the three chicks, placed them in a large tub with a towel and ice packs to keep them cool, and whisked the parcel to a blanket set on one side of a corral at Dunrovin Ranch.

Researchers from the University of Montana landed on the guest ranch Thursday to band the three chicks and tell school children in summer camp a little bit about them. UM and its partners also worked on a project to develop curriculum for middle school students based on osprey.

SuzAnne and Sterling Miller own the ranch, and a web cam is trained on Harriet's nest with followers from around the world.

SuzAnne Miller said the banding offers critical feedback about the osprey, and the more people understand about the birds, the better they know how to steward them. The Millers invite the children to observe the activity because the experience opens their eyes to their environment.

"If you care about something, if you have a personal connection, it makes it real," Miller said. "They'll never look at another osprey the same way again."

This year, it's especially heartening to know the chicks in Lolo are alive, Miller said. The chicks in the Hellgate Canyon at the Riverside Health Care Center starved to death because high and muddy waters made it difficult to fish the Clark Fork River.

The ones at the ballpark didn't hatch at all.

Climate change means more stormy weather, but the recent tempests haven't affected the Bitterroot River quite as much, Miller said. Hal, Harriet's mate, has been able to fish and feed the babies.

"These osprey live on the edge, always on the environmental edge," Miller said.


When Rob Domenech of Raptor View Research and Dalit Guscio of UM pulled the first chick out of the tub, the children exclaimed.

"Wow. They're big."

The birds hatched on June 1, 2 and 4, and their wings are still growing. They haven't yet learned to fly or fish.

Domenech and Guscio banded the birds one at a time, one federal metal band and one colored identifier, and they weighed them. They clipped feather samples and took blood from the two largest birds.

The scientists placed a cloth over the chicks before putting them on the scale, and that elicited a question from one youngster.

"Why do you have to put that over its head?"

"Because it will struggle," said Domenech, who is collaborating with UM.

The largest chick just looked around with piercing eyes as the researchers worked, but the smaller ones rebelled. The tiniest one wiggled and squealed, and Miller, who has seen the larger chicks peck at it, was encouraged to see the creature put up a little fight. 

"He's holding his own. He's a little scrapper. I hope he makes it," Miller said.

Domenech ventured a guess: "I have a feeling that this one is going to be alright."


As the scientists worked, Miller told the school children the story of how the osprey family ended up there and how the chicks earned their names.

The nest was on the property 20 years ago when the couple arrived, although Northwestern Energy moved the 350-pound structure from one of the company's power poles to a pole on the guest ranch.

"They've really gone a great distance to help osprey," she said of the energy company.

In 2011, the Millers fired up the web cam, and Harriet has been returning at least since then. Osprey are constantly molting, so they're difficult to identify with the markings on their feathers, but Miller knows Harriet by the pattern of flecks in her eyes.

Miller writes about the ranch in her online magazine and community forum, "Days at Dunrovin," and she wrote about the naming and related bird drama there.

"First, we had a goose lay an egg on the very day that Harriet arrived," Miller wrote.

"After Harriet chased her off, a raven solved the problem of what to do with the goose egg by stealing it. No sooner had the goose/raven episode settled down than Harriet was attacked by a great horned owl."

Well, Miller said, the web cam watchers wanted her to give the chicks alliterative names that started with H, so she did. One is called Honk, for the goose who laid the egg. One is named Hoot, for the owl. And one is called Hero.

"The raven is the hero of the story. He took the egg," Miller told the kids.

Hal, by the way, was named after the death of Harriet's mate Ozzie.

"We were so glad when she found a mate, we said, 'hallelujah,' and we called him Hal," Miller said.

The onlookers listened to the story and watched the researchers band, clip and weigh, and they quickly became experts.

"This osprey smells like a fish," Domenech said.

"Of course it does," said one child.

Stephanie Potts, youth program coordinator with the Montana Natural History Center, said the opportunity for the children to see the osprey up close is invaluable. The students see role models, she said, and they learn that being a scientist might mean taking a ride in a bucket truck.

It's a rare and wonderful experience, she said: "Who gets to see baby osprey?"


UM professor and wildlife biologist Erick Greene said a $50,000 grant from NASA through the state's Montana Space Grant Consortium is supporting a pilot project to show middle school teachers how to use osprey in lessons. He said a $500 grant from the Five Valleys Audubon Society leveraged the larger award. 

In Montana, 95 percent of schools are one mile from an osprey nest, Greene said. The project teaches middle school teachers lessons in biology, the environment, chemistry, physics and math to take back to their students. The target audience includes middle school girls, who can be dissuaded from the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

The school teachers, who applied to be in the program, also observed the banding at the ranch, but Greene said the lessons are going both ways.

"We're learning as much from them," Greene said.

It's been roughly a decade since the Milltown Dam came down, and Greene said one question the chicks help answer is how much heavy metals are in the rivers. He said the "Big Five" — copper, arsenic, lead, cadmium, and zinc —appear at low levels.

But mercury is a concern.

The osprey are at the top of the food chain, and before they've flown, the chicks are eating fish that comes only from nearby rivers. As such, the information the researchers glean from them shows the health of local waters.

One observation Greene has made in his work along the rivers is that osprey eggs hatch in areas where mercury levels are low. However, in places where mercury levels are high, he has a different experience.

"I come home with buckets of dead eggs," Greene said.

At the ranch, he passed around a couple of eggs that didn't hatch this year from the nest at the ballpark. They were speckled with brown spots, a little bigger than a chicken's egg.

"Aren't they pretty?"

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