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Habitat loss threatens bay creatures' survival

A little osprey chick has been the center of attention for a growing crowd of admirers this summer. It'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-def video camera attached. So Tom and Audrey's busy nest-hold is being beamed out to the world via http://www.chesapeakeconservancy.org, 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 will survive to fly away.

It's been a lesson to us all. Nature has its own rules, and for osprey they read like this: The first-born chick dominates. 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 chick won't get enough to eat and may die. For a long time late this spring, it looked as if that might happen to the third chick.

To us, it seems cruel, but it's a long-evolved way of balancing population to available resources. Osprey will never over-populate; their numbers won't surpass their habitat's ability to supply food. A balance will be found, but it's a tough lesson for us humans to watch, accustomed as we are to manipulating the world.

As humans, we see the world from our point of view. We give the birds names: Tom and Audrey, and for the chicks Chester, Essie and Ozzie. We feel compassion for them all, want to feed that third chick and want to see this family succeed. But these splendid birds — intelligent and charismatic as they are — aren't people, and we should not step in.

Goodness knows, we already affect their world enough. Consider the many ways in which we humans have disrupted the balance of nature as we crowd the Earth. Here's one example: In 1939, a chemist in Switzerland discovered that DDT, an organochlorine insecticide, could kill potato beetles and many other insects. 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.

By the late 1950s, osprey had become a rare sight, as had bald eagles and peregrine falcons. These top predators ate at the top of the food web, and the DDT they accumulated thinned their eggs' shells. They failed to reproduce, and their populations crashed. Other birds also suffered and numbers declined. Marylander Rachel Carson noticed, and detailed her observations in "Silent Spring" in 1962. In 1972, DDT was banned from general use in the U.S., and many other countries followed suit. Slowly the osprey population, and populations of other birds, recovered.

Though DDT is no longer a threat to these birds, many threats remain, and none is greater than the loss of their habitat, the physical environment they require for survival. The single greatest thing we can do for this osprey family, and their feathered, furry, slithery and leafy green neighbors, is protect the woods, fields and water that sustain them. That won't be easy, as there are millions more people expected to move into the Chesapeake watershed in the next decade. Each one will bring his or her own environmental demands.

However, we can choose to give wild plants and animals the space they need. Whether it be preserving forest integrity throughout the eastern forests where natural gas drilling is now pressing forward, or protecting our river corridors, we can take the right steps. These include strong planning, fully supporting our states' land conservation funding, applauding landowners who see the wisdom in putting conservation easements on their properties, and working with our local land trusts and conservation groups.

Conserved lands cleanse the air, purify water, provide habitat and give us all healthy outdoor recreation space. Saving high-quality open space is the best way we can help Tom and Audrey raise their brood, and future broods, and in the long run it's the best we can do for ourselves, as well.

Joel Dunn is executive director of the Chesapeake Conservancy, a nonprofit that conserves landscapes along the Chesapeake Bay's great rivers. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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