November 5, 2014

THE WILD LIFE | Fall in Love With the Osprey

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Dr. Erick Greene does not look the way I thought he would. I figured that a guy who’s spent his life following ospreys would have that National Geographic vibe — serious and short, with glasses tucked into the chest pocket of a fleece vest and a full beard to go along with it. What I got instead was a tall, clean-shaven, jovial man, as comfortable cracking jokes at his own expense as he was talking about his avian research.

“I did my undergraduate honors project on ospreys, way back in the Pleistocene — I mean, glaciers had just left the land,” he told me. Now he’s a professor at the University of Montana and a founding member of the Montana Osprey Project, studying the same birds that got him started a few geologic epochs ago.

His research focuses on heavy metal accumulation in ospreys. “The Clark Fork River in Western Montana was the largest EPA superfund site for a while,” he told me. Back then, miners didn’t know much about heavy metals, and with no regulating body to lay down the law mining waste piled up next to the river. Toxic elements like arsenic and lead leached into the waterway, settling into the riverbed once the river hit a dam near Missoula. Much of that toxic sludge has since been removed, but Dr. Greene is studying how leftover metals accumulate in the local food chain. Think Silent Spring, with slightly less patriotic birds.

Dr. Greene is about more than just heavy metal osprey research, and the number of amazing band names that sentence brings to mind. That’s really just the first prong of the project’s approach. Prong two: General conservation biology for ospreys. “We’re finding that ospreys are having a bunch of problems,” he said. He’s got some cool projects running that peek into the lives of ospreys to learn what is necessary to make their lives a bit easier. There are too many to go in depth here, but I will say this — bird backpacks, with satellite transmitters.

The third prong is for us people, and it’s all about outreach. Dr. Greene works to get ospreys enough face time for people to fall in love. The best way to do that? Put them right in front of you. He talked to me about a particular nest just outside centerfield at the Missoula Osprey’s baseball stadium, the former home of a lovely little osprey family with three kids.

When he goes to put identifying bands on young birds in the summer, Dr. Greene takes groups of young camp goers along with him. He brought around 70 kids to watch him band this particular nest. He’s like a cool older cousin — over the years he’s brought around 2,000 kids face-to-face with some pretty cool chicks.

The Project is also responsible for two live streams of osprey nests out in Montana, both of which are a part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bird Cam family. “Every year it’s a soap opera,” he said with a chuckle. When the ospreys are in residence the cams offer an up-close, 24-hour, Real Housewives-style look into the lives of these gorgeous birds. They’ve got everything: Romance, sibling rivalry, dysfunctional families and more. Better yet, the continuous feed means you don’t have to wait for Netflix to release the next season! For Dr. Greene, the best way to get someone to care about ospreys is to bring them right into his or her living room. You never know what people might learn when you do. Who knows- maybe they thought their osprey would have a beard.

Michael Levin is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. The Wild Life appears alternate Thursdays this semester.