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Information About Banding Ospreys

The wonderful Osprey family at the Hellgate nest in Missoula, Montana, has been part of a long-term research program led by Rob Domenech (a leading expert on raptor ecology and migration, and director of Raptor View Research Institute), Dr. Heiko Langner (director of the Environmental Biogeochemistry Lab at The University of Montana), and Dr. Erick Greene (Professor in Wildlife Biology and the Division of Biological Sciences at The University of Montana). We have taken small blood and feather samples and banded the chicks at this nest for many years. The Hellgate Osprey nest has been an important part of our much larger research program focused on the effects of mine wastes in the Clark Fork River Basin. In fact, samples from this and other nests have alerted us to the problem of extremely high mercury levels not only in Opsreys, but also in fish and other aquatic organisms in some aras of the watershed. In addition, we are examining the effects of environmental contaminants on the Ospreys’ health, reproductive success, and longevity. We are monitoring a large number of Osprey nests in many different watersheds in western Montana. We have also helped put up and run the nest camera at this nest and at the Dunrovin Ranch nest so viewers like you can share in the intimate view of daily Osprey life.

At about 9:30 A.M. (Mountain Time) on Wednesday, July 25, 2012, we went up to the nest with a large bucket truck and brought the chicks down to the ground. Working as efficiently and safely as possible, we took blood samples, banded them, and then got them back to Iris in about a half hour.  After banding, the chicks have two aluminum bands on their legs (one on each leg) with unique numbers on them, so if these chicks are ever caught again or recovered, biologists will be able to trace them back to this nest.

You can rest assured that we do absolutely everything that we can to ensure the safety and well-being of the chicks. We are doing these studies since we are passionate about the health of Osprey populations, and although we know we disturb them from time to time, we think that information we have discovered about baling twine, mercury, and other issues has already saved the lives of countless Ospreys. Crown Royal, Captain Hook, and Squish have been enchanting and beguiling to all of us already during their short lives, but they will also be important players in helping us understand the bigger threats to our environment.

To help answer your questions about banding, we have provided the information below. If you have further questions, please visit The Project Osprey Facebook page.

Q: What is the risk of banding Ospreys?

A: Scientific evidence shows that the risk from banding Ospreys is low. Tens of thousands of Ospreys have been banded around the world, and many of them have bred successfully for years. We also know that banded populations of Ospreys grow as fast as unbanded populations. For example, Ospreys (adults and chicks) in Westport, Massachusetts, were intensely banded during the 1980s when the population was recovering from near extinction following heavy DDT use. That population doubled in 6-8 years, which was identical to the population growth of nearby unbanded Osprey populations.

The bands themselves are very light aluminum, and we are especially careful to ensure a good fit and make sure there are no sharp edges. You might think that when the Ospreys slam into the water to catch a fish that the impact would jam the band up against their ankle joint and rub it. However, Ospreys hit the water with their feet wide open, and this seems to really protect their legs.  When we and others examine the legs of banded Ospreys we do not see any sign of abrasion or irritation of the skin on their legs. We have talked with Dr. Alan Poole and Dr. Rob Bierregaard, two of the leading Osprey biologists in North America who have dedicated their lives to Osprey conservation, and they have banded Ospreys that are now more than 20 years old and who are still going strong.

Q: Aren’t you disturbing the Ospreys by banding them?

A: There is no question that it disturbs the birds during the brief banding process, but the birds return to their normal behaviors soon after the chicks are returned to the nest. It upsets the adults when we go up to the nest, but after we return the chicks to the nest, the female is usually back with them before we are even back on the ground. The welfare of the Osprey chicks is our top concern, and if we feel there is any danger to the young, we will not band them. For example, during a banding trip last week, we took three chicks out of a nest in Missoula. We banded one chick, but felt that the chicks were getting more stressed than we like to see. So we halted the operation immediately, did not band the other two chicks and did not take blood samples, but got the chicks back up to their nest immediately. Although we do not like to disturb the Ospreys in the short-term, banding them is important in the long-term to gain the scientific understanding needed to improve conditions for their health and survivorship.

Q: What does banding tell us? 

A: Everything we know about several important aspects of Osprey biology comes from banding studies: sources of mortality, where they migrate, how they disperse, and how long they live. Our studies are now focusing on how high levels of mercury influence Ospreys. We are banding Osprey chicks in areas of high mercury (such as the Hellgate nest) and in nearby areas with much lower mercury. Over time, with these careful banding studies, we want to see if there are differences in Osprey survival and dispersal that are associated with levels of mercury. There is currently no other way to collect data on this extremely important conservation issue.

Q: Is what you’re doing legal?

A: Yes, but only because we have special permits to band Ospreys. First of all, in order to band birds in the United States one has to have a Master Banding Permit issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, or operate under the auspices of a Master Bander. These are not easy permits to get--they require an apprenticeship and a clear demonstration that you are a safe bander and that you understand and abide by all the rules and regulations about banding. Beyond the Master Banding Permit, our project also requires specific federal and state permits, as well as nationally overseen Animal Care and Welfare permits.

Thank you for interest in the Ospreys! They play an important role in helping scientists and the public understand how their species is affected by environmental factors and how we can help them. We will continue to share the information and insights we learn from them to help advance the understanding and protection of Ospreys and their habitats.