Pennsylvania Game Commission on the verge of upgrading status of osprey
In an Aug. 29 work session, game commissioners heard a report from Doug Gross, endangered and non-game bird section supervisor, who of late has overseen the state’s three-decades-old osprey reintroduction and recovery program. He said that it was time to declare the effort a success.
“The osprey recovery story in Pennsylvania is a conservation success story that this agency and its partners can be very proud of. The bottom line right now is that I am recommending that we upgrade ospreys in Pennsylvania from threatened to secure,” he said.
“We are still going to – no matter what – protect and promote ospreys and their habitat under the Migratory Bird Treaty act. But the people’s fish hawk is here to stay.”
Gross recounted the osprey’s troubled past in Pennsylvania. But the birds were never all that common in the state to begin with, he noted, and there likely are more ospreys here now than there ever were.
From a low of one known nesting pair in the late 1980s, near Gerard in the northwest, osprey numbers have grown to be relatively plentiful today.
A Game Commission survey this year revealed 149 active osprey nests with at least 10 nesting pairs in six watersheds – Delaware River (lower and upper basins), Susquehanna River (lower and upper), Upper Ohio River, Beaver River ( including Lake Arthur and northwestern wetlands), Allegheny River (including Kinzua Reservoir and Lake Wilhelm), West Branch of the Susquehanna River and the Monongahela River.
Gross pointed out that ospreys have adjusted remarkably well to living with humans in Pennsylvania. “They have become pretty adjusted to the human landscape, and as long as they have clean water and nobody bothers them, they are okay,” he said.
“There are probably more ospreys here now than ever before because we have created more habitat for them. Many of the birds are clustered around reservoirs that didn’t exist before and on cell towers, utility poles and other man-made structures.”
But humans also caused their demise in the state. Like other raptors, thousands were shot – many by anglers who resented the ospreys for killing and eating fish. Then, when their population was sagging in the decades following World War II, the wide use of the pesticide DDT interfered with the birds’ reproduction and kept their numbers low.
“DDT probably didn’t kill the birds outright, but it did keep the population from recovering,” Gross said.
However, osprey populations persisted in other places. They have the widest range of any bird in the world and occur on all contents except not Antarctica. Ospreys are migratory birds that travel great distances, Gross noted.
“An osprey seen in Pennsylvania probably spent the winter in the Amazon drainage in a rain forest rain or on the shores of Cuba or some other exotic place thousands of miles away.”
It took a determined, patient and collaborative effort to bring the birds back. Funded mostly by the Wild Resources Conservation Fund, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Game Commission teamed up to bring osprey chicks to the state from the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.
Under the guidance of osprey experts from East Stroudsburg State University, the young ospreys were “hacked” in towers where the birds learned to fly and could not see the humans feeding them fish.
In addition to the reintroduced birds, ospreys naturally moved south into the state from New York and north from Maryland, following major rivers. Their status was upgraded from endangered to threatened in 1999.
The result is a steadily growing population that is filling gaps between a thriving eagle population.
“Eagles muscle ospreys out of prime locations, to say the least,” Gross said.
If game commissioners vote, as expected, to follow Gross’ recommendation at their Sept. 19 meeting and change the status of ospreys from threatened to secure, not much will change, because the birds are a protected under federal migratory bird statutes.
One thing that will change is that osprey nests will no longer show up on the Pennsylvania Natural Diversity Index, which is checked before tracts can be developed. So the presence of an osprey nest will no longer deter builders.
“This is a magnificent success story – we have this species that no longer needs this definition for protection – the future for the osprey looks very bright in Pennsylvania,” Gross said.
“It is a charismatic species with a broad appeal to all people and even a lot of fishermen now say, “ I know they eat fish but that’s OK, I like seeing them.’
“They are a flagship species for water quality – ospreys are a symbol of clean watersheds.”