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Falmouth group building safer nesting sites for returning osprey

Nesting on utility poles has sparked fires and power outages. The Osprey Project is putting up safer homes.

Osprey pairs are tenacious creatures of habit, preferring to perch atop utility poles for a clear view of the fish they're after. But osprey nests have also sparked fires, electrocuted the birds and wiped out power in parts of Cape Cod.

Ahead of the March return of the osprey, the Falmouth-based Osprey Project is working to deter nesting on poles by luring the birds to alternative platforms nearby.

Kevin Friel and Barbara Schneider launched the project in November as a safety model for other towns to follow. They spoke to Morning Edition's Patrick Flanary about their progress.

Patrick Flanary: What are you doing to ensure that they do have other places to nest safely?

Kevin Friel: We're offering the osprey a safe alternative for them to rebuild a nest, and we're hoping that they will choose our alternate location instead of repeatedly trying to build on the same utility pole.

Barbara Schneider: The first step to that process was for two experts — Kevin being one of them — to go around the entire town of Falmouth and analyze which nests could possibly be a problem. And we're going forward with the next prong of this approach, which is to give the alternative and put up the deterrent.

Patrick Flanary: Did this involve driving around Cape Cod?

Kevin Friel: It did. This actually started as a photography project that I quickly abandoned. I was going to try to photograph every single osprey that we have in Falmouth. So in order to do that I went around and tried to find all their nests, and was just completely overwhelmed. But that's also when I noticed that nests that had been there for years were all of a sudden gone. And then we started having fires, and then we started having birds die. And that's when I said, "O.K., it's time now we figure out how to get these birds safe."

Barbara Schneider: I reached out and said, "We can do this." We started to work together. And I think Eversource has joined in on the positive process.

Patrick Flanary: What's your working relationship been like with Eversource?

Kevin Friel: We're coming together. Early on, I'm not sure that they quite understood how deep the problem was. Last spring, Eversource removed as many of the nests as they could find on their poles, around 18 of them. And all of them were rebuilt by the birds.

Barbara Schneider: There's definitely a listening going on and an understanding of why this is no longer Eversource's job to put up new platforms. That said, I think Kevin and I have come up with a pretty good template that other towns can follow.

Patrick Flanary: How do you deter an osprey? Is it as simple as moving the nest to an alternative site in someone's yard, and do they know the difference?

Kevin Friel: Once they build a nest, they want to build in that exact same spot. So to deter them from a pole, it has to fit a very tight set of parameters, as far as distance from the old nest. The birds are maniacal. They will not give up.

Barbara Schneider: We also see this as a way to help our fire and police. It's really a broad spectrum of ways we see this as a good project, both for humans and for the birds.

Patrick Flanary: What are the humans saying when you tell them you want to erect an alternative nesting site in their yards?

Kevin Friel: We get kind of a mixed bag. A lot of people are very enthusiastic about having the birds safe from these utility poles. They've grown up with these birds; it's almost like a pet to them. They look forward to the return of the osprey toward the end of March.

Patrick Flanary: What's the ultimate goal for osprey population control?

Kevin Friel: We're not doing this in any way to control the population of osprey. We are providing a safer place for an already existing pair of osprey to nest. Before we were here, there were thousands of osprey on Cape Cod. As humans, we've moved in and cut down all the dead trees and put up parking lots in these areas where the birds used to be able to live.

Barbara Schneider: This project is definitely not trying to add platforms. We are only troubleshooting these problematic poles and replacing what exists and trying to maintain it.

Patrick Flanary: How many nests need to be moved?

Kevin Friel: There are 20 of them that 100% are a problem because of fires and power outages.

Patrick Flanary: What does short-term success look like to you?

Kevin Friel: By mid- to late March I'm hoping to have permission from all of the homeowners that we've asked, or find a homeowner next door. The problem is these birds can't go just anywhere. It took us months to figure out the best location for the birds. And that's what I think about: the best location for the birds. Secondary to that is my concern for how this is going to affect this person's property.

Donations to cover the construction cost of alternative nesting sites can be made to the nonprofit Falmouth Together We Can. Volunteers are needed to build platforms, and should email waquoitphoto@aol.com.

Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.