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July 06, 2011 - For most area residents, cell towers are a common fixture of the urban landscape—needed to keep cell phones chirping. However, a handful of local osprey have found another use for the steel behemoth—a highrise home.

On Wednesday afternoon, Eric Schmitt, site supervisor for American Tower Corporation, helped coordinate a visit to a local osprey nest. A climber from ATC scaled the 200-foot cell tower located near a residential area in Orion Township. ATC, along with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and local wildlife groups, have kept a watch on the birds that choose to nest in the tops of the towers.

"About 25 percent of our towers have birds of prey nesting on top," he said. "There are about 200 towers in Oakland County and when necessary, our climbers go up and bring the chicks down to be tagged. The mom and dad osprey are not real happy about it and usually swoop the climber, but get out of the way. They've never been attacked, so far. It's interesting what they make their nests out of—we found a plastic coat hanger in one nest and even a T-shirt. They pick up what they can find. The nests, which are about four feet in diameter, also get bigger when they are older. And it's always one nest for one tower."

When the climber gets to the top of the tower they pick the chick out of the nest and lower it down in a bucket so a wildlife specialist can evaluate the bird.

Julie Oakes, DNR wildlife habitat biologist for southeastern Michigan, which includes Brandon Township, spent most of Wednesday tagging the osprey chicks.

"We measure and estimate the age of the chicks," said Oakes. "The osprey are migratory birds and typically travel to South America each year. But we don't have tracking devices, it's far too expensive. We do, however, place colored tags so if the bird is found or spotted we can identify the year and the area it was found."

Oakes said osprey nests in cell towers are an excellent adaptation.

"It's a great place to live," she said. "Consider no predator is going to climb up 200 feet on a steel tower to harm a bird. They have really adapted to urban life—just about every community has a cell tower. In comparison, in the northern regions of the state, the DNR builds nest platforms over water for osprey to nest. But they are much lower and can be at risk for harm."

Oakes added that chicks will fly at about eight weeks.

"They will start flapping (their wings) and off they go—it's 200 feet down so they had better be ready. And many are now surviving—the osprey were in trouble about 20 years ago due to pesticides. Now we are seeing more of them and they are considered a species of "special concern," not endangered like they were several years ago."

"The greatest danger still is environmental," she added. "We cut a section of plastic baler twine off the leg of an osprey chick from a nest in Romeo. It's a very fragile environment."

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