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DECATUR — When presented with the opportunity to assist in reversing the status of an endangered species in Illinois, the Decatur Building and Construction Trades Council pooled its labor force to forge a 4,500-pound bird house.

Last year, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources embarked on an 8-year program to rebuild the osprey population throughout the state by constructing hacking towers, which are essentially large bird houses elevated about 20 feet where birds are raised and released.

The department established the first hack site last year at Anderson Lake, south of Havana, and a second site will be formed Saturday at Lake Shelbyville near the Sullivan Marina. Funding for the first two years of the program comes from a federal wildlife restoration grant.

Like several bird species, the osprey population fell to effects of the DDT pesticide in the 1960s, said Patrick McDonald, IDNR wildlife biometrician and project manager for the program. From exposure to the pesticide, bird egg shells became thinner and more frail, breaking under the bulk of the mother bird.

Tih-Fen Ting, an associate professor of environmental studies at University of Illinois Springfield and principal investigator for the project, said without conservation efforts, future osprey generations will be at a loss for valuable research opportunities.

“The osprey is a very unique raptor; it's the only of its kind found to only eat fish,” she said. “They have a significant ecological role and function to play in the food chain.”

Local union electricians, carpenters, iron workers, painters and others have collaborated to build the hacking structure, allowing the project to progress “both easily and swiftly,” said Shad Etchason, trades council president.

Jason Drake, training director of the the Midstate Electrical Training Center who heads the project's construction, said that after they finalized designs, the team began prefabricating pieces on Monday. The pieces for the deck and hacking box will be assembled at the site on Saturday and raised on top of utility poles by a Telehandler, basically a mix of a forklift and crane, that Altorfer Inc. donated for the day.

“The project is a great way for union construction trades to give back to nature and aid in the task of increasing an endangered species population,” Drake said.

One side of the hacking box will be made of metal bars, allowing ventilation and a view so the birds can become familiar with the area. Heat will not be a problem for the birds of prey as they control body temperature through panting, much like dogs, McDonald said.

After the hacking site is assembled, it will be home to five young ospreys from Virginia, which will arrive in late June.

The birds will be five-to-six weeks old, past the point where human imprinting could occur, McDonald said. Osprey adapt well to artificial platforms, often nesting on utility poles or cranes, he added.

The birds will be kept inside the hacking box until they reach fledging, or flight-ready, age, which usually occurs about 55 days after hatching.

A graduate student, research assistant and two field technicians from the University of Illinois Springfield will tend and track the birds, feeding them twice a day.

Commonly known as fish-hawks, the osprey function on an all-fish diet. Frozen fish caught through electroshock by the Illinois Natural History Survey Kaskaskia Biological Station in Sullivan will be diced into small pieces and fed to the birds until they learn to tear their food apart.

Osprey can migrate as far as South America and tend to return to their fledging area with a mate, especially the males, McDonald noted.

“The goal is to release several birds over several consecutive years and reach the point where they are able to build up their population by themselves,” he said. “Within 20 years or so, we hope to remove osprey from the endangered species list.”


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