When I was a kid, the proverbial canary in the environmental coal mine was indeed avian, but a much bigger, much more formidable creature than any songbird: the osprey. Osprey, referred to as “fish hawks” where I come from, are large, powerful raptors that are essentially specialized eagles (though classified by biologists as a distinct species), a little smaller than bald eagles, that make their living the hard way – they hunt all day for things that swim below the water’s surface. To do that they need incredible eyesight, and almost unbelievable physical prowess, which allows them to hover in place, scanning for prey, before they dive like stones, and at the last instant orient their terrible talons forward so they can grab the quarry. Having caught a fish, an osprey aligns it along its flight axis in the same way that old-school torpedo bombers carried their payloads, taking advantage of the confluence between hydrodynamics and aerodynamics in order to reduce drag:
I love osprey.
When I was a kid, it seemed a near certainty that these beautiful creatures would go extinct within my own brief lifetime. Populations throughout the areas in which they’d always thrived were collapsing, the result of a strange, crippling inability to hatch chicks. The shells of their eggs simply shattered in the nest during incubation. Osprey couldn’t reproduce.
It was determined that pesticides were the problem, specifically DDT, which had once been viewed as a miraculous chemical that would, at long last, defeat the pests that blighted global agriculture. Sadly, there were nasty side effects. DDT, as it was absorbed and concentrated within the tissues of living things, produced various deadly outcomes. This was particularly an issue with predatory birds. Osprey, like eagles, are apex predators, and such creatures tend to be the most adversely affected by toxins that are introduced into the environment; they eat the things that eat the things that first absorb the poison, which gets ever more concentrated as it works its way up the food chain (imagine a lion that in a month eats five ruminant animals, each of which has grazed over five acres of contaminated grassland). Somehow, DDT in sufficient concentrations caused eggs laid by predatory birds to become thinner, and fatally brittle. The thin shells shattered in the nest, before the chicks could be born.
Before I was even a teenager, osprey had, as a result, all but vanished from Nova Scotia, where they had once been common, and from just about everywhere else, too. But then successful, science-based environmental lobbying led to a ban on DDT. In just a few years, with the toxin no longer being pumped to the tune of millions of gallons each year into the ecosystem, osprey populations started to rebound. Bald eagles too, and other birds as well.
Today, I can sit here in my living room overlooking the bay and see osprey plying their trade, all day long. From a distance, they can be hard to distinguish from crows, or even gulls, until you become attuned to the way they fly when they’re hunting. In order to spot fish, they pause in mid-air, hovering like helicopters. They’re maintaining position, the better to look down with those incredible eyes, trying to spot fish. Most often, they see nothing. As with all predators, many of their hunts fail. But often enough, just often enough to keep them fed and healthy, they’ll hover, then fold up their wings and plunge into the sea like the wrath of some vengeful deity, then flap away with a fish suspended lengthwise in their talons.
It’s wonderful, really. I can look out my window just about anytime during the day and watch them at work. When I was an adolescent, it would have been a safe bet that I would never get to enjoy the sight of an osprey doing its thing. Yet today, every day, I see them, in all their beauty, flying over the bay, hovering from time to time, scanning, diving. Every one of them soaring over Mahone Bay is a welcome reminder that things don’t always have to get worse, and that battles to save what’s precious don’t always end in defeat.
Sometimes we win. Sometimes things get better. I see the proof every day, cruising at altitude, piercing the water with those eyes that see so much better than mine.