Cooperative effort saves hawks. Martha's Vineyard program increases osprey population

JACKIE ONASSIS has one. So does author John Hersey. So does singer Livingston Taylor. His brother, James, doesn't have his yet, but he's on the list. What these three Martha's Vineyard residents (along with 61 others) have is a 20-to-30-foot utility pole topped by a platform that forms a base for osprey nests. Some poles already have nests, others are waiting to be discovered. They're part of a program to encourage the osprey to propagate the island. It's run by the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, one of 17 sanctuaries administered by the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

And it's working. There are now 45 active nests, up from two in 1971. One reason, says program director Augustus (Gus) Ben David, is a close relationship between the sanctuary workers, the power company, volunteers, and residents.

``The osprey personifies Martha's Vineyard. People love them, they covet them,'' says Mr. Ben David, a stocky, grizzled expert on raptors (birds of prey), who is peering up at a nest site through a telescope.

Ospreys have never hit the Vineyard in droves, says Ben David. They like tall, dead trees in cleared spaces, sparse on this scrubby island where the wind keeps the trees from growing very tall. The next best thing, he says, is a utility pole. When those first went up in the early 1900s, the ospreys started to settle. They never ``got a toehold,'' he says, because power company employees would often destroy the nests, which would short out the electricity when they got wet. DDT shrank the ospreys' numbers as well, until the pesticide was taken off the market in 1972. In other areas, says Alan Poole, osprey researcher at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, predators like raccoons, whose population has exploded along with suburbia, have kept osprey populations down.

The Audubon program was started in 1970 when a pitch pine tree containing one of the last two nests on the island blew over in a storm. Ben David decided to replace it with an old utility pole topped with an upended tree stump. (Stumps, which rotted, were replaced with crossbeams.) That first year, ospreys built a nest there and raised two chicks.

``What we did was plug in the missing component that was keeping the population at a static level,'' says Ben David, a naturalist and third-generation islander.

The local electric company started calling him when ospreys began to nest on their poles. He'd erect a new pole nearby to lure the birds away and put a metal guard on the old one to keep them off. Often, the process involved tracking down the owner of the property. ``I've had to call [owners] as far away as California. But they've always told me, `Gus, do what you need to do for the birds.'''

A team of about eight volunteers joins him to erect the poles by hand, a job that takes them 2 hours. Commonwealth Electric donates trucks and linemen for emergency jobs. Other residents volunteer planes and helicopters to make inventories of the nests.

Nesting programs aren't new: They go back to colonial times in coastal New England, when farmers put wagon wheels on poles to attract ospreys that would drive away chicken hawks.

``This is a conservation story that's been successful,'' says Dr. Poole. This species, which was seriously endangered in the '60s and '70s, is ``booming'' these days. There are other programs in Massachusetts, as well as in New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and other states - some with over 1,000 pairs.

There's now a waiting list for the $300 ``complete nesting unit'' here on the Vineyard. What is it about these dark-brown hawks with white breasts that's made people take them, so to speak, under their wing? Ben David, who also works with a bald eagle, a golden eagle, a red-tailed hawk, and an owl, says for him it's watching the osprey's spectacular dives for fish. ``Sometimes one will start 200 feet up, come in at 100 miles an hour. When he pulls out of his dive, the wind makes a rushing, beautiful sound through his feathers.''

``Here you have a huge, exciting bird of prey that nests in people's backyards; they're tame!'' says Poole. ``Even Disney World can't do that well. Then they take off for the winter to South and Central America. It's connecting people to a much larger ecosystem.''

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