The return of ospreys to Cook County is more than a story of a spectacular raptor’s revival. It also illustrates the success of efforts to improve water quality and natural habitat in the county, and the need to continue those efforts.
Ospreys, which the Cook County Forest Preserve District has named the July bird of the month, dine almost entirely on fish. They can thrive only where water quality is good enough to support a sufficient population of finned prey.
The sight of ospreys circling overhead with their six-foot wingspans and diving toward the water to grab piscine potluck is cheering Chicago area conservationists, who see it as a sign their efforts are paying off. Sixty years ago, the birds had disappeared from all of Illinois because of the pesticide DDT and loss of habitat.
To provide nesting sites, the forest preserve and Friends of the Chicago River have erected special platforms atop tall utility poles. The poles replace the mostly vanished tall old-growth trees ospreys prefer.
The first ospreys to return appeared in the 1980s in southwestern Cook County. Forest Preserve wildlife biologist Chris Anchor says there are now 19 nesting pairs in Cook County, and Field Museum Senior Conservation Ecologist Douglas Stotz says there are at least four more in DuPage, Lake and McHenry counties. The birds, also called fish hawks, set up homesteads here in the summer, before heading south, like so many Chicagoans, for the winter.
To keep improving water quality and fish habitat, local agencies should make a priority of implementing the 2015 aquatic life standards approved by the Illinois Pollution Control Board. More native plants should be planted in streams and specially constructed fish habitats should continue to be installed.
Cleaning up the waterways and providing quality natural habitat has been a years-long struggle. The sight of ospreys is an encouraging reminder these efforts have been paying off and that we need to keep working.
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