WILSON — Birders, conservationists and just plain folk have celebrated the successful comeback of osprey following the banning of DDT in the U.S. in 1972. In recent decades the proliferating piscivorous raptor has carried an attendant problem along with its comeback; it often builds its nests on power poles.
The result can be costly outages and lost birds. Which is why power companies and birders started installing obstacles on problematic power poles and erecting osprey nesting platforms nearby.
But that successful program brought its own unintended consequences. Canada geese nest earlier than osprey. They occupy the platforms first — the elevated structures keep them safe from predators — and won’t be chased off when osprey eventually migrate back. In case you never thought about it, geese won’t naturally nest in trees because they can’t grasp twigs and branches with their webbed feet. So they find the platforms a perfect home.
At the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, the nonprofit team is testing a simple solution. The goose excluder platform for osprey nests pivots on a hinge. In the weeks when geese are starting to nest and before osprey arrive, nest-minders pull a cable to tilt the platform about 45 degrees.
No self-respecting goose would nest at such an angle, even if she could keep her eggs from rolling off, said George “Porgy” McClelland, a member of the center’s board of directors. Once geese are excluded from the osprey platforms and ensconced in their natural environments, osprey nest-minders release the tension on the cable and the platform returns to its horizontal position.
All of which seems like no big deal, which is only half correct. The solution is simple and more an example of problem solving than sophisticated engineering. But the goose excluder could bring widespread benefit considering the cost and inconvenience of power outages and the expense of erecting platforms that don’t work for osprey.
The tilting platforms, which are still being tested, also highlight the success of a little nonprofit that uses science, ingenuity and dedication to help avian wildlife. If the goose excluder works, it could become as successful as the Teton Raptor Center’s Poo-Poo Project, an effort that has screened the vents on more than 6,000 vault toilets from Alaska to Texas, keeping owls and other cavity-drawn birds from becoming trapped and meeting an ignominious end.
Geese nest first
Invading geese (don’t worry, the goslings survive their leap to the ground) first attracted center director Amy Brennan McCarthy’s attention a few years ago when her group was operating WOW – the Wilson Osprey Webcam focused on an osprey nest. But it became the WGW when a chin-strapped honker took over the site.
In the Wilson vernacular with which McClelland describes natural events according to the sporting calendar, “the geese are back before the Town Downhill and the osprey come back after the hillclimb.”
McCarthy started getting phone calls.
“Why,” her supporters cried. “What can we do about it?”
No harassment by the 3-pound osprey could dissuade the tough, 10-pound Canada goose. “The geese, they just hunker down,” McClelland said.
Worries compounded when an osprey-goose nest platform battle took place along the heavily trafficked Highway 22 between Jackson and Wilson. “That’s when it blew up,” McCarthy said of the avian drama. When geese win these confrontations, the osprey may revert to a power pole for nesting. On Highway 22, there are now separate goose and osprey platforms.
But doubling up on platforms didn’t seem like a solution. Center staffers and volunteers researched and brainstormed. In Montana, orange cones are placed on osprey platforms for the crucial weeks in the spring. But that requires deploying a cherry picker — for $200 a trip — twice a season.
Center workers thought of retractable domes that could shield the platforms for a few weeks. Another concept — it could be called the goose gooser — would have raised spikes through the bottom of the nest and platform to temporarily dissuade nesting.
Bryan Bedrosian, senior avian ecologist with the center, came up with the concept for a tilting platform, McClelland said. McClelland, a building contractor with interests in renewable energy projects, refined the design. “I just tweaked it and ran with his idea.”
The latest model sits on a steel frame that tilts up on an off-center pivot. A cable runs down the platform pole to a ratchet that raises one end of the platform with a few turns of the handle. When tension is released, the platform returns naturally to the horizontal plane. There are now four in Jackson Hole.
Outages cost money, are inconvenient
The goose excluder has benefits beyond osprey. In the Lower Valley Energy service area in western Wyoming and eastern Idaho, workers have erected almost 200 regular osprey nesting platforms. Afton Boy Scouts build the platforms for less than $100 in materials, said Rick Knori, the utility’s director of engineering. Setting them on a pole can cost up to $1,500.
They are worth it. Replacing a power pole when a nest shorts energized lines and causes a fire, can cost $5,000, plus inconvenience.
While the Raptor Center’s tilting nest seems to have solved all the problems, the group is proceeding cautiously with its project. Staff members and landowners will monitor the four tilt nests for success. Refinements are expected.
“It will continue to evolve,” McClelland said.
As it does, it could become a conservation and financial success akin to the Poo-Poo Project. The Poo-Poo Screens keep birds that seek out cavities from becoming trapped in the vault toilets so common at campgrounds. The center has 170 partners in 18 states that are buying the $30 screens, some at bulk discounts.
The screens are a successful product because they were refined to perfection. Vault toilets are designed with 12-inch diameter plastic vent pipes that meet federal (this is not a joke) Sweet Smelling Technology standards. Vent pipes that diameter keep vault toilets olfactorily tolerable.
Simply covering their openings with chicken wire is an inferior solution. A $100 “rock fence screen” — designed originally to keep out pebbles that kids through up into the vent pipes — had ventilation and other problems. The Raptor Center’s Poo-Poo Screen is elevated a bit above the top of the pipe and can be installed by a person with four screws.
“People can get a cordless drill and go up there and do something,” McClelland said. The Poo-Poo Project encourages community action and education, part of the center’s mission. At the Hardeman Barn in Wilson, the center also rehabilitates raptors.
The center strives to keep the cost of the screens low so they can be widely deployed. Their sale nevertheless brings in some extra money, reducing some of the need to raise funds.
The Raptor Center could have another successful project with the goose excluder. If so, it would become another effort that grew from public involvement as much as anything else. Center workers didn’t discover the vault toilet problem themselves — somebody sent them a photograph of a bedraggled owl trapped in a toilet.
“It was six years ago we got this picture…” McCarthy said.