DECATUR — Five cardboard boxes in the back of a sport utility vehicle held the hopes of many bird people Wednesday.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has been working for a long time to bring the osprey back to Illinois, and the 5-week-old birds in those boxes were on their way to a hack site — a place where birds are raised and released — at Anderson Lake, south of Havana.
“With the osprey, the hope is by having a hack site, they will imprint and they’ll return,” said Joe Kath, endangered species program manager for DNR. “But it’s not a guarantee. Our chances are good of meeting our recovery goal, moving them from ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened’ and to delisting.”
Ospreys generally return to the same area annually with a mate to raise their young, and it’s usually the place where the male was born. They mature around age 2 or 3 and won’t mate until then, so they were fitted with the bands and radio transmitters to track them.
Known as “nestlings” at this age, the young ospreys were driven to the Illinois Raptor Center to be weighed, measured, banded and receive fluids by injection under the skin. They didn’t care much for the injection portion of the proceedings but were surprisingly calm and cooperative for most of the rest. That’s because they’re juveniles, said Jacques Nuzzo, the center’s program director.
With volunteers helping hold the birds and writing down the results of the exam, Nuzzo called out measurements and the condition of feathers, beak, eyes and attitude.
“The feathers look good,” he said of the first nestling. “A little ratty, but that’s all right.” When he got out the tool to measure its head, he said to the bird, “You’re not going to like this,” as he laid the ruler on the bird’s head, and sure enough, it made a peeping sound and pecked at him.
Kath said these five came from Langley Air Force Base in West Virginia, where they nest on power poles. Ospreys and equipment are in danger in that situation, where the birds could fly into the plane engines.
The entire process of repopulating the ospreys is a cooperative effort, Kath said. The Air Force is providing young birds; the Department of Fisheries is freezing Asian carp that are culled to keep the invasive species’ numbers down, and that will be the birds’ food; medical care, if necessary, will be provided by the Illinois Raptor Center; and the Illinois Rural Electric Co-Op of Winchester is going to erect poles for the birds’ nests. Approximately five young birds will be released every year for eight to 10 years, with a goal of 52 to 55 birds.
Kath hopes that next year a second hack site will be started at Lake Shelbyville.