Osprey life is fascinating but also brutal

  • By Mike Benbow Special to The Herald
  • Friday, August 1, 2014 6:07pm
  • Life

EVERETT — For the last month, I’ve been watching a pair of osprey raise their chicks in a nest in the middle of the Snohomish River delta not far from saltwater.

I thought it would help me reconnect with nature and it has. But I’ve got to say that nature can be pretty cruel at times, so reconnecting with it isn’t always as wonderful as all the books say. It can be more than a little unpleasant.

Think of those cute, downy little osprey chicks as stone-cold killers and you’ll get what I’m talking about. But more on that later.

The osprey have pretty simple roles.

Experts say the male’s job is to find and deliver the food for everyone. That’s pretty much all he does, showing up with a fish every three hours or so and then immediately leaving the nest.

The female usually eats a little of the fish right away, then starts tearing off hunks with her beak and distributing it to the chicks. She does a good job of stuffing all the babies, although as they’ve gotten older, they also like to help themselves.

When the food is gone, the babies pretty much fall asleep in the nest until the next load of sushi shows up. Ninety-nine percent of an osprey’s food is fresh fish, so the only thing that varies on the menu is what type it’s going to be.

A lot of meals are flatfish, a bottom fish from saltwater. But there are also trout and other species from the river.

The female is with the babies 24-7, leaving only when something dangerous like an eagle flies overhead, a noisy jet ski comes roaring by, or when it’s been several hours since there’s been any food and she’s been calling out for her mate unsuccessfully. That’s usually when she’ll fly off to find him and they’ll come back together.

When the adults leave the nest, the babies typically keep their heads down. Their coloring camouflages them pretty well with the sticks and leaves, so the nest looks empty.

Other than eating, sleeping, and pooping, the babies don’t do a lot. But there was the time the two babies beat up a third sibling just after dad dropped by with a new meal.

One head-butted the scrawnier sib several times and pecked at it with its sharp beak, knocking the sibling down and tromping over it to get to the food.

As the fallen sibling tried to get up, the other brother or sister knocked it down again and helped eat up all the food. That was the end of the third baby.

Experts say that having siblings pick on each other is not uncommon, especially if food is scarce. The babies born first are often larger and bully the smaller siblings so they get more food.

Another osprey nest just upriver started with three babies and now has only one, so the fratricide may not be over for the family I’m watching. The babies will remain in the nest for another four to six weeks until the feathers are fully formed and they learn how to fly and how to start feeding themselves.

Snohomish County has a large colony of osprey around the Snohomish River delta. The birds fly south for the winter, but return here every year in April to feed and to raise their young.

I’ll try to give you another report of the baby osprey in a month or so.

River life

Standing in a briar patch alongside the Snohomish River, I could hear something in the blackberry bushes.

I could hear it, but I couldn’t see it. I just knew it had to be pretty large to make all that noise. So I backed out of the bushes and watched a mink come by in its luxurious fur coat.

I’ve seen a lot of wildlife while standing riverside and watching osprey.

There have been seals, a beaver, rabbits, a garter snake, and a host of birds, from herons to hawks and gold finch to gulls.

But the mink was the most unexpected visitor.

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