Just after lunchtime one day in March, the power failed at a Department of Motor Vehicles office in eastern North Carolina when a nearby utility pole caught fire.
In May, up the coast on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, sixth grade students sat in the dark as they prepared to take a standardized exam on an overcast morning. The local energy company shut off the school’s power after a minor blaze erupted over a power line half a mile away.
Two weeks later in a nearby town, televisions flickered off and the hum of refrigerators fell silent when a roadside line burst into flames, briefly leaving more than 3,500 homes and businesses without power.
These fires all started the same way: A pair of Ospreys built their nest on top of a utility pole. When a stray stick, pile of excrement, or the birds themselves touched the wrong piece of equipment, an electrical current formed. The heat from the connection sprouted a flame that reached the birds’ nest—a pile of kindling waiting to catch.
There is no official count of how often Osprey nests spark electrical fires, but according to local news reports, thousands of buildings from Prince Edward Island to Oregon lose power each year due to nests built in the wrong places.
Ospreys themselves often fall victim to the flames. Last year nest-bound chicks, too young to fly, perished on top of a utility pole on Long Island, New York, trapped by an electrical fire. This year, a Long Island homeowner reported still-intact eggs that toppled to the ground after a quick blaze, according to Aaron Virgin, a wildlife expert who coordinates surveys of the region’s Osprey population.
Energy companies, tasked with providing reliable power to their customers and under public pressure to accommodate the birds, have had their hands full. “We don’t like dead Osprey; we don’t like flaming poles,” says Misti Sporer, an environmental scientist at Duke Energy, a large utility based in North Carolina.
The increase in Osprey nesting on power lines is born of a success story. The species' population crashed in the 1960s when the pesticide DDT washed into ponds and wetlands from farm fields and public lands, where it was sprayed to deter mosquitoes. The chemical worked its way up the food chain, causing raptors to lay eggs with shells so thin they cracked before hatching. After public outcry and lengthy legal battles, the Environmental Protection Agency finally banned the pesticide in 1972.
In recent years, Osprey populations have flourished and their nesting range has expanded over the coasts, the Great Lakes, and the West. In 2001, biologists estimated that more than 16,000 pairs roamed the continental United States, with far more today as their numbers have continued to climb. Nearly nine in 10 pairs build their nests on human-made structures, according to 2014 research by Brian Washburn, a raptor biologist with the National Wildlife Research Center, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That’s a big change, explains Alan Poole, a veteran ornithologist who’s written two books on the species. Decades ago, most Ospreys nested in trees and dead snags. When the species recovered from near-extinction, “a lot of those trees were gone.” At the same time, electricity infrastructure, including tall utility poles out in the open, expanded. “Ospreys homed in on those,” Poole says. “It’s like somebody designed the perfect nest site for them."
Many utility companies have struggled to keep up with the birds’ expanding numbers. Some have launched public monitoring programs to get a better handle on where birds are nesting. Others are working to design artificial platforms to keep the birds away from electrical equipment. One Ohio utility uses drones to survey their equipment for active nests.
Complicating the problem is that the birds remain committed to their nest site and territory even after disaster strikes. Sporer from Duke Energy, who chairs the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee industry group, remembers when a nesting male was electrocuted and died from his injuries. “Within a day, the female had another mate and they were attempting to rebuild the nest on the exact same pole,” she says. Her company sent out a lineman to discourage the new pair, thinking they’d soon move to another site. The birds had other plans. “They were dead set on this pole,” Sporer recalls.
The utility did what any would do in an ideal world: It shut off the power line, insulated its wires, and installed a nesting platform for the birds. In two days, the pair had finished building a nest on the new site.
Crucially, the company discovered the nest and insulated wires early enough in the season, before the pair had laid any eggs. Once there are eggs or chicks inside, nests are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Utilities can trim dangling branches and cover exposed wires, but they need a special permit to remove a nest.
Utilities can’t find and relocate every nest built on their equipment—there are too many birds and not enough resources to construct and maintain a nest platform at every site. Duke Energy now has a 24-hour employee hotline to manage any problems from the nesting birds. “The only time our operator doesn’t answer the phone is when he’s in the restroom or at church,” Sporer says. The line will ring two or three times a day in the spring with different staff reporting new nests. “During nesting season—the whole month of April—our hotline operator is a busy fellow,” she says.
In central Maryland, customers of Baltimore Gas and Electric Company, or BGE, can call or email the utility directly if they spot an Osprey nest on a power pole. So far this year, the company has received more than a hundred tips, the most since the reporting program launched in 2016, according to Greg Kappler, one of BGE’s environmental scientists.
“Even with all of that, there’s no way we could find every single one of these in a season,” Kappler says. “It’s just not possible.”
But when the company can act swiftly, doing so saves it headaches and money in the long run. Nick Alexopulos, a representative from BGE told Audubon by email that it’s more expensive for the company to respond to a power outage from an osprey nest than to retrofit a utility pole. “We save customers money by proactively responding to nest reports or nests our crews find on their own.”
In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, just south of Portland, Stuart Sloan, a compliance manager for a mid-size utility company called Consumer Powers Inc., has been working to manage nesting Osprey for more than 15 years. He thinks they’ve nearly perfected the art.
Linemen build an entirely separate, taller nesting structure a few feet away from the operating utility line to entice the birds. It’s outfitted with a metal platform that won’t rot over time, and even a little perch to give Osprey parents the chance to “get a break from the kids,” Sloan says. Installing one of these structures runs the company between $3,000 to $5,000, but the price is well worth it, he says. “Build it and they will come."
In other parts of the country, utility companies are just beginning to experiment with alternative nesting platforms to contend with the growing numbers of Osprey. As certain areas have become saturated, Osprey are spreading to new sites. “I wouldn’t want to be working for a utility company and be the Osprey point-man for the next 20 years,” says Poole, the ornithologist. “They’re going to have their hands full.”
Audubon magazine is a nonprofit, and stories like this are made possible by readers. You can make a donation today to support our journalism.