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Birds of prey find unlikely home in Annapolis mall parking lot

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Fresh seafood is on special this summer at the Westfield Annapolis Mall.

As many shoppers and diners have noticed in recent weeks, a pair of osprey are raising a chick on a lighting fixture outside the former Macaroni Grill, near the intersection of Generals Highway and Bestgate Road.

You don't have to be an ornithologist to know that osprey typically nest near water, and a parking lot seems like a ridiculous choice for birds who depend on fresh fish for food. But Dave Brinker, a regional ecologist with the Maryland Heritage Wildlife Program, a branch of the Department of Natural Resources, says the nesting site represents progress, population growth and a formerly endangered species that has survived by becoming more flexible.

"We've reached carrying capacity for natural nesting sites," Brinker says, noting that the birds historically nested atop dead trees. When he began working for the state in 1989, osprey were still recovering from poisoning by DDT, a pesticide that thinned eggshells and decimated the populations of American raptors — another term for birds of prey — until it was banned in 1972. By 1996, a comprehensive study found more than 3,500 nesting pairs breeding on 427 tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, with 1,492 pairs in Maryland.

Twenty-five years later, Brinker says, "We are up to our armpits in osprey."

But still. Why a mall parking lot? "These ospreys are doing what nature programs them to do: Looking for alternatives," Brinker said. "To an osprey that is thinking outside the box, a light post on a parking lot looks like a lot like a dead tree surrounded by water. Instead of the sea of the Chesapeake, it's a sea of asphalt and humanity."

While he can't know for sure, there's a good chance that these two love birds were raised on a nonnatural nesting site, such as a communications tower. When it was time to breed, the mall raptors didn't go looking for a tree, they went looking for something human-made, something like a large, tall, mall lighting fixture.

"We have osprey all over the place, in all kinds of strange locations," Brinker said.

The 1996 Chesapeake Bay osprey study found that 50% of mating pairs were nesting on channel markers, but since then, the Coast Guard has redesigned markers to make them less hospitable, and in some cases installed alternative nesting platforms. Utility companies have tried moving empty nests when osprey interfere with transmission lines, through programs like Baltimore Gas and Electric's "Osprey Watch."

In other words, well-intentioned humans have convinced several generations of osprey that they can nest anywhere as long as they are within reasonable proximity to water where fish are plentiful. Westfield Mall is less than a mile from Weems Creek, and as Brinker said, "They don't mind commuting to the grocery store."

Osprey typically begin breeding around age 3, mate for life and can reach the age of 30, although seven to 10 years is a more likely average. The winter range for East Coast osprey spans from Florida to Argentina, and they prefer to return to the same nesting site each spring if they successfully raised chicks there the previous year.

Curtis Dingle, a facilities manager for Westfield Annapolis, said the mall initially called pest control when the osprey arrived several years ago, but have since opted to leave the birds alone. Under terms of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, it's illegal to disturb osprey nests once eggs are laid and until after the chicks fledge. No shoppers have complained about the nest, Dingle said.

Brinker said humans and mid-Atlantic osprey have learned to coexist, and that the Westfield Mall birds seem particularly well adapted, otherwise they would never have built a nest at the mall. The chief human threat now is discarded plastic. Osprey like to line their stick nests with softer materials, and don't realize things like plastic bags could potentially strangle their chicks. Case in point: There appear to be several sheets of plastic wrapping dangling from the nest at the mall. "They aren't slobs," Brinker said, defending the birds.

There's just one thing that shoppers should be wary of, and that is osprey leftovers landing on your car. "Pieces of fish could get down into the air vent, and you don't realize it until things really start to stink," he said laughing. "Those are the kinds of crazy things that happen once in a while."

His overarching advice, besides checking the hood of your car if you park near an osprey nest, is to "have fun watching, and appreciate that osprey populations have rebounded tremendously."

(© Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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