Man vs. Osprey: It's A Draw (Eventually)

By Bob Adriance

Jim Ellis is a smart guy. As the former president of BoatUS, Jim had to deal with dozens of complicated problems and issues that involve America's boat owners. These were big problems. Important problems. So when an osprey began building a nest on his 25' center console's T-top that's moored behind his house, Jim wasn't especially concerned. He bought one of those big balloons with a menacing eye that is supposed to remind birds of an owl. Birds are afraid of owls.

The osprey stayed away from his boat for a day or two then apparently decided an owl that teetered back and forth drunkenly in the same place wasn't much of a threat. Soon the sticks began appearing again.

Jim got a rubber snake ... The pile of sticks kept growing.

He strung monofilament line all over his boat ... The osprey tiptoed around the lines carrying more sticks.

Jim is a patient man. He did a little research before finally installing a device — a foolproof device, he was told — that had a fountain of thin wires with weighted balls on the ends. Even a hint of wind or ripples on the water moves the wires in wildly different directions, which scares and confuses a bird.

Sure enough, the osprey kept its distance. Then, after eyeing the bouncing wires for a day or two, it flew in early one morning and dropped a large stick squarely in the center of Jim's gizmo. Whomp! The wires stopped moving.

The pile of sticks started growing. Jim was getting desperate. If the osprey completed the nest and laid its eggs, Maryland law said the "nest" (Jim's boat) couldn't be moved until the babies grew up and flew away. That would be in late fall, right at the very end of the boating season.

Lori moved the sticks. Without the sticks, the nest wouldn't be built and eggs wouldn't be laid. The osprey brought in more sticks. Lori moved the sticks again. More sticks appeared. No sticks. More sticks. No sticks. More sticks ... This would have worked, eventually, but after many days of removing sticks, Lori complained that her life was devoted solely to defending Jim's T-top.

Jim's life was being ruined by an osprey. In desperation, he decided to apply for a permit to build an osprey habitat, which is a box on top of a large pole. Maybe the osprey would like a box more than his T-top. A nice man at Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage cheerfully told Jim that processing a permit takes three months — May, June, July — and he could legally place a pole and box in the water. This would be about when the babies on his T-top were growing their adult feathers.

Jim had an idea. He hadn't done such a great job outsmarting the osprey, but he’s always been good at spotting loopholes. It seems there is no rule against placing a box ("It's for my dog") on top of a piling so long as the piling is already there. Jim's dock has lots of pilings.

He worked with the folks at Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage to select a tall one at the end and they nailed a box to the top. Sticks began to appear in the box. Then more sticks. A while later, the mother osprey settled in and in a few weeks the happy sounds of cheeping birdies could be heard on Jim's dock. They went cheep, cheep, cheep whenever Jim walked down his dock.

Jim and the mother finally reached an understanding: He leaves her nest alone and she stays away from his boat. 

— Published: February 2011