Chesapeake reality TV has gone to the birds

Audrey finishes off a rockfish after all of her chicks have been feed. (Photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Conservancy web cam)

For the last few weeks, a little osprey chick has been the center of attention for a growing crowd of admirers. He's the third chick to hatch to a pair of osprey, Tom and Audrey, who make their home on a nesting platform at the end of a dock on Kent Island.

It's an osprey home like many others with one exception: It has a hi-definition video camera attached. So Tom and Audrey's busy nest-hold is being beamed out to the world via, a real reality TV show. Thousands of folks check in daily to see whether Tom has brought home the fish, whether Audrey is tending the nest and — maybe most of all — whether that little chick is getting enough to eat.

It has been a lesson for us all. Nature has its own rules, and for osprey they read like this: The first-born chick is dominant. It gets the food first, grows bigger and picks on its younger nest mates. If the parents can't find enough fish, then the youngest chicks won't get enough to eat — and they may die. It's a way of balancing population to available resources.

Osprey will never overpopulate; their numbers won't surpass the ability to supply food. A balance will be found, but it's a tough lesson to watch. This compelling reality show is one of the reasons so many eyes have been watching via the Internet.

It's amazing how technology has given us a window into the Chesapeake wild. As humans, we see that world from our point of view. We give the birds names: Tom and Audrey, for example. We'll give the chicks names, too.

On our Facebook page, people are already calling the third chick "Spunky," "Little Bit," "Tuffie," or "Rocky." Our office favorite is "Wiggles." We feel compassion for him and want to see this family succeed. But these splendid birds — intelligent and charismatic as they are — aren't people. Human morality does not apply. Goodness knows, we already affect their world enough.

Consider the many ways in which we humans crowd the Earth and have disrupted the balance of nature. Here's one example. In 1939, a chemist in Switzerland discovered that DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), an organochlorine insecticide, could be used to kill potato beetles. The compound revolutionized agriculture and saved many lives by killing typhus-carrying lice and malaria — and yellow fever-carrying mosquitoes. After World War II, it was widely distributed — and praised. But then our beloved birds began to rapidly disappear because of unintended impacts of DDT.

By the late 1950s, osprey had become a rare sight, as had bald eagles and peregrine falcons. DDT concentrated in the food web; these top predators ate at the top of that web and the DDT they accumulated thinned their eggshells. They failed to reproduce; their populations crashed.

Other birds also suffered and numbers declined. Rachel Carson noticed, and detailed her observations in "Silent Spring" in 1962. In 1972, DDT was banned from general use in the United States, and many other places followed suit. Slowly, the osprey population, and populations of other birds, recovered.

Today, one can kayak out on one of our great rivers in the Chesapeake or the Bay proper and see many osprey families.

But while DDT has been banned, threats to osprey and other wildlife continue. We are now working to protect the osprey's habitat — the physical environment required for their survival.

That won't be easy as there are millions more people expected to move into the Chesapeake watershed in the next decade. Each one brings his or her own environmental demands. Protecting our river corridors now through land conservation and easements is the best way we can help our feathered, furry, slithery and green neighbors. We can give them space in which to thrive.

If we do, our acts will help Tom and Audrey raise their brood, and future broods. And that's good. Because believe me, I'm hooked on that osprey cam, too.

Joel Dunn is the executive director of the Chesapeake Conservancy. Its mission is to conserve the Bay's historically, culturally and ecologically significant landscapes and public access to them.

The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.

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