DECATUR – When Jacques Nuzzo opened the crate containing the first baby osprey for this year’s hacking project, he was a bit taken aback.
“I said, ‘Oh, that really is a baby,’ ” said Nuzzo, program director for the Illinois Raptor Center, which works with the University of Illinois at Springfield to examine and catalog the birds. “I was just a little worried about it, not super worried, but I thought, ‘Let’s just keep him inside and make sure his body temp stays stable,’ and he’s doing great. I’m going to move him outside today.”
The osprey chick in question was estimated to be only 3 weeks old. Normally, the chicks are pulled at six weeks, when they’re considerably larger and better equipped to be on their own.
Nuzzo decided this baby needed a little more time to grow, and it’s been in the care of the center for a couple of weeks. A DNA test to determine whether it’s male or female has not yet come back.
“Normally, the osprey project gets the birds from Virginia,” Nuzzo said. “But this year, for some genetic diversity, they got birds from Kentucky, so the Kentucky [Department of Natural Resources] said they had an abundance of ospreys. So they pulled six, and they pulled some pretty young ones.”
The osprey repopulation project is funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and overseen by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. An endangered species in Illinois, the effort’s goal is to restore the osprey as a nesting species in the state.
Ospreys are very large, distinctively shaped hawks. Despite their size, their bodies are slender, with long, narrow wings and long legs. Ospreys fly with a marked kink in their wings, making an M-shape when seen from below. Ospreys are brown above and white below, and overall, they are whiter than most raptors.
“This is the first year that we are actually getting birds from Kentucky,” said Tih Fen Ting, professor of ecology and environmental science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “In the past, we only got them from Chesapeake Bay with the support of the Navy and Langley Air Force Base.”
Early in the project, which has been underway since 2013, part of the reason for obtaining birds from Langley was that their nesting sites on the base endangered birds and aircraft.
Similar repopulation efforts are underway all over the country, Ting said, and she was part of a nationwide assessment of how those projects are faring. The Illinois project still is quite small, as the average number of birds in the programs is 100. Some have 200 or 300, while Illinois only is up to 68.
“We have a long way to go,” Ting said. “The juvenile raptors have a high mortality rate, and that first year, we only had five birds. We don’t know how many have survived wintering in Central or South America.”
Nine birds recently were taken to hack sites in Banner Bay along the Illinois River and to Lake Shelbyville, where they’re provided with food and nesting boxes. The hope is that when they mature, they’ll choose to return to the hack site to raise a family, but that could be five to seven years away, Ting said.
The Illinois Raptor Center doesn’t receive any funding for assisting the project, Nuzzo said, only the satisfaction of being able to help birds.
While the youngsters are in the center’s care, they eat 3 pounds of fish a day, which Nuzzo prepares and presents to them. He doesn’t handle them any more than necessary to collect data such as weight and overall health, because they need to stay wild and not become too used to humans.
A few birds have transmitters connected to a satellite, but that is prohibitively expensive, and it’s not possible to tag them all.
Nuzzo is just excited to be part of the project and to know that birds he personally examined are living their lives thanks, in part, to his help.
“There’s a bird in the Yucatan Peninsula that I had my hands on. There’s a bird in Colombia who bit me. That’s why I like all the science. That’s why I like collecting all this information,” he said. When we revamped how we do things here, and started collecting all the data, a lot of it for me is that I want to be sure that we are doing the right things. Is it effective? Is it working? The money, the time, the facilities.
There’s a lot of back yard rehabbers who do this out of their house, and they’re great people,” he continued. “But I think you do a lot better if you step it up and you have facilities and people who work on it. But if we’re doing it wrong, I want to know.”