The Mast-Head: Story of Revival

Osprey were once all but extinct

I awoke Tuesday to the cries of fledgling ospreys soaring overhead. Every year about this time, the young occupants of nearby nests launch into the air for their first flights at the beach and, exuberant, at least to my ears, screech in evident delight as they earn their wings.

I did not know this sound as a child living near the same beach. As recounted in The Star’s most recent East magazine, which came out last week, osprey were once all but extinct. Among their few last refuges was Gardiner’s Island, where, although in a single 1905 count a local naturalist had found a nesting colony with as many as 600 breeding adult osprey, they had dwindled to a point in about 1966 at which only three or four fledglings survived.

Scientists knew what was going on: DDT, a common mosquito control pesticide, was weakening the birds’ eggs to the point that they would crumble in the nests before the year’s young could hatch. Once DDT was banned nationwide in 1972, the osprey came back.

The path to the ban, however, was not smooth, as Glyn Vincent described in the recent East. Dennis Puleston, an amateur ornithologist, and Charles Wurster, a biologist at Stony Brook University, took the osprey’s protection to the laboratory first and then to court, suing the county mosquito commission to stop the use of DDT. Publicity surrounding the case eventually led to a state ban.

From New York, the anti-DDT movement spread widely. Soon, the Environmental Defense Fund, which grew out of the Long Island effort and was headed by Mr. Puleston, scored a victory in federal court, which ordered the then newly created Environmental Protection Agency to take DDT off its approved list. Slowly, the ospreys returned.

Osprey are relatively plentiful these days, to the point that they almost are just part of the avian background, like seagulls or starlings. Though, as the young ones just out of the nest make their first madly joyous flights at the beach, I cannot help but pause to marvel.