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Calling the ospreys home: Protected birds build nest on Poulsbo cell tower

An osprey delivers a stick to its nest atop a T-Mobile cell phone tower in Poulsbo, April 18. The nest is safe from removal, as ospreys are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as well as state law.                                                          - Tad Sooter
An osprey delivers a stick to its nest atop a T-Mobile cell phone tower in Poulsbo, April 18. The nest is safe from removal, as ospreys are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as well as state law.
— image credit: Tad Sooter

POULSBO — Three steel towers on a ridge top off Fourth Avenue ensure Poulsbo cell phones keep ringing. To a pair of nesting ospreys, they are simply home.

In recent weeks, the pair has been busy building a lavish nest on one of the towers, which rise from a wooded City of Poulsbo property. The ospreys are hardly the first to make their home on a cell phone tower platform. Cell phone tower nests are an increasingly common sight in the Northwest, state Fish and Wildlife District biologist Jeff Skriletz said.

“They can get absolutely massive,” Skriletz said, “like a Volkswagen sitting up there.”

The nests can also be a source of friction between avians and service providers. Sometimes the stick piles  cause equipment malfunctions or interfere with signals.

But Poulsbo bird lovers can rest easy. State and federal law prevents homeowners from tampering with nests. Skriletz said companies can modify the nests outside of the nesting season, which lasts from April to September, but modifications require state approval and careful oversight. In some cases the state has allowed property owners to remove a nest while building an alternative nesting platform nearby.

“It’s getting to be a real issue,” Skriletz said of ospreys nesting on cell towers. “We still need to work out a statewide approach to it.”

The City of Poulsbo owns the Fourth Avenue property and leases it to cell phone tower operators. Public Works Foreman Keith Svarthumle said he alerted T-Mobile after hearing of the nest Monday. T-Mobile spokesman Rod De La Rosa said the company’s policy regarding bird nests is simply to follow “all state local and federal guidelines.”

There is at least one other cell tower osprey nest in the area, on State Route 305 on Bainbridge. Along with a few other nests on the island, there is a nesting pair of ospreys in Hansville and a few nests in the Silverdale area, including one in the top of a stadium light tower at Central Kitsap High School.

The Fourth Avenue nest was a new sight for Kitsap Audubon member Gene Bullock.

“I’ve never seen one in Poulsbo before,” he said.

Ospreys are returning to the Northwest this month, after wintering in Mexico and points south, said Mike Pratt, director of wildlife services for West Sound Wildlife Shelter on Bainbridge. The raptors seek out their old nests and rejoin their mates for the spring breeding season. Ospreys lay up to five eggs, which take about 50 days to hatch.

Ospreys populations have been on the rise since their numbers were devastated by DDT and other toxins in the mid-20th century. Ospreys are listed as a species of concern under the Endangered Species Act, and are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Cell phone towers and power poles make ideal nest sites because ospreys like broad platforms to build on and wide views of their surroundings.

Some utility companies are already building structures on or near their towers to accommodate nests or to dissuade would-be nest builders.

If handled properly, the ospreys and towers can coexist, Skriletz.

“You can have your tower, have the osprey and the public loves them,” Skriletz said.

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