American Osprey

My War with the Ospreys

John Steinbeck
Holiday Magazine
Volume 21: page 72-73 & 163-165

My war with the ospreys, like most wars, was largely accidental and had a tendency to spread in unforeseen directions. It is not over yet. The coming winter caused an uneasy truce. I had to go into New York while the ospreys migrated to wherever they go in winter. Spring may open new hostilities, although I can find in my heart to wish for peace and even friendship, I hope the ospreys, wherever they may be, will read this.

I shall go back to the beginning and set down my side of the affair, trying to be as fair as I possibly can, placing truth above either propaganda or self-justification. I am confident that until near the end of the association my motives were kind to the point of being sloppy.

Two years and a half ago I bought a little place near Sag Harbor which is quite near to the tip of Long Island. The outer end of Long Island is like the open jaws of an alligator and, deep in the mouth, about where the soft palate would be, is Sag Harbor, a wonderful village inhabited by people who have been here for a long time. It is a fishing town, a local town which has resisted the inroads of tourists by building no motor courts and putting up no hotels.

Sag Harbor was once one of the two great whaling ports of the world and was, according to local accounts, not at all second to Nantucket Island. At that time no fewer than one hundred and fifty whaling bottoms roved the great seas and brought back their riches in oil. Sag Harbor and Nantucket lighted the lamps of the world until kerosene was developed and the whaling industry languished.

With the wealth brought back by the whalers, beautiful houses were built in the village during the early 1800’s, houses of neo-Greek architecture with fluted columns, Greek key decorations, with fanlights and Adam doors and mantels. Some of these magnificent old houses have widow’s walks, those high balconies on which the women kept watch for the return of their men from their year-long voyages. Some of these old houses are being rediscovered and restored. Many of the streets of Sag Harbor are named after old whaling men. My own place is near Jesse Halsey Lane and he is still locally known as Old Cap’n Jesse. I have a picture of his rough and whiskered face.

The place I bought is not one of the great old houses but a beautiful little point of land on the inland waters, a place called Bluff Point, with its own little bay--incidentally a bay which is considered hurricane-proof. Ordinarily only two boats are moored there, mine and one other, but during hurricane warning as many as thirty craft come in for anchorage until the all-clear is broadcast.

My point, just under two acres, is shaded by great oak trees of four varieties and there are many bushes and pines to edge it on the water side. I myself have planted a thousand Japanese black pines, furnished by the State of New York to edge my point, to hold the soil with their roots and eventually to curve beautifully inward, urged by the wind which blows every day of the year--sometimes a zephyr and sometimes a fierce and strident gale.

Greensward grows on my place. On the highest point I have a small, snug cottage and in front of it a pier going out to nine feet at low water so that a fairly large boat can dock. My own boat, the Lillymaid with Astolat as her port of registry, is named for my wife. She, the boat, is a utility craft twenty feet long, a clinker-built Jersey sea skiff. Her eight-foot beam makes her highly dependable and seaworthy. Many of these specifications could also describe my wife. She is not clinker-built, however. The Lillymaid has a Navy top to put up when the weather gets too rough and she has a hundred-horsepower engine so that we can run for it if a storm approaches. She is a lovely, efficient and seaworthy craft and all we need for the fishing and coastal exploring which is our pleasure.

Our house, while very small is double-walled and winterized so that we can drive out during cold weather when the not-so-quiet desperation of New York gets us down.

My young sons, ten and twelve, but eight and ten when the osprey war began, adore the place and spend most of their summers here, exploring about in their skiffs or quarreling happily on the pier or on the lawn under the oak tree. My wife, who I believe was realistically skeptical when I bought the place, has become its staunchest defender.

Our association with the village people of Sag Harbor is, I think, pleasant to all of us. I come originally from a small town on the West Coast, a fishing town where my people have lived for a long time. And I find that what applies in my home country is equally acceptable in Sag Harbor. If you pay your bills, trade locally as much as possible, mind your own business and are reasonably pleasant, pretty soon they forget that you are an outlander. I feel that I belong in Sag Harbor and I truly believe that the people of the village have accepted us as citizens. I do not sense the resentment from them which is reserved for tourists and summer people.

But I must get back to the ospreys, because with them I have not only failed to make friends but have, on the contrary been insulted, have thrown down the gauntlet and had it accepted.

On the West Coast, in California’s Monterey County where I was born, I learned from childhood the grasses and flowers, the insects and the fishes, the animals from gopher and ground squirrel to bobcat and coyote, deer and mountain lion, and of course the birds, the common ones at least. These are things a child absorbs as he is growing up.

When I first came to Long Island I knew none of these things. Trees, grasses, animals and birds were all strange to me; they had to be learned. And sometimes the natives could not help me much because they knew the things so well and deeply that they could not bring them to the surface.

Thus with books and by asking questions I have begun to learn the names of trees and bushes, of berries and flowers. With a telescope, a birthday present from my wife, I have watched muskrats and a pair of otters swimming in our bay. I have tried to identify the migrating ducks and geese when they sit down in our bay to rest from their journey.

The mallards mate and nest in the reeds along our waterline and bring their ducklings for the bread we throw to them from the pier. I have watched my boys sitting quietly on the lawn with the wild ducks crawling over their legs to get pieces of doughnut from their fingers.

The baby rabbits skitter through my vegetable garden and, since I like the rabbits better than my scrawny vegetables, I permit them not only to live but to pursue happiness on my land.

Our house has a glassed-in sun porch and outside its windows I have built a feeding station for birds. Sitting inside I do my best to identify the different visitors with the help of an Audubon, and I have not always, I confess, been successful. There is one common blackish bird which looks to be of the grackle persuasion but his bill is the wrong color and I don’t know what he is.

In the upper branches of a half-dead oak tree on the very tip of our point, there was, when I took possession, a tattered lump of trash, which looked like an unmade bed in a motor court. In my first early spring a native named Ray Bassenden, our contracter and builder, told me, “That’s an osprey’s nest. They come back every year. I remember that nest since I was a little boy.”

“They build a messy nest,” I said.

“Messy, yes,” he said professionally, “but I doubt if I could design something the winds wouldn’t blow out. It isn’t pretty but it’s darned good architecture from a staying point of view.”

Toward the end of May, to my delight, the ospreys came back from wherever they had been, and from the beginning they fascinated me. They are about the best fishermen in the world and I am about the worst. I watched them by the hour. They could coast along hanging on the breeze perhpas fifty feet above the water, then suddenly their wings raised like the fins of a bomb and they arrowed down and nearly always came up with a fish. Then they would turn the fish in their talons so that its head was into the wind and fly to some high dead branch to eat their catch. I became a habitual osprey watcher.

In time, two of my ospreys were nudged by love and began to install new equipment in the great on my point. They brought unusual material -- pieces of wood, rake handles, strips of cloth, reeds, swatches of seaweed. One of them, so help me, brought a piece of two-by-four pine three feet long to put into the structure. They weren’t very careful builders. The ground under the tree was strewn with the excess stuff that fell out.

I mounted my telescope permanently on the sun porch and even trimmed some branches from intervening trees, and from then on, those love-driven ospreys didn’t have a moment of privacy.

Then June came and school was out and my boys trooped happily out to Sag Harbor. I warned them not to go too near the point for fear of offending the nest builders, and they promised they would not.

And then one morning the ospreys were gone and the nest was abandoned. When it became apparent that they weren’t coming back I walked out to the point and saw, sticking halfway out of the nest, the shaft and feathers of an arrow.

Now Catbird, my youngest son, is the archer of the family. I ran him down and gave him what-for in spite of his plaintive protests that he had not shot at the nest.

For a week I waited for the birds to come back, but they did not. They were across the bay. I could see them through the telescope building an uneasy nest on top of a transformer on a a telephone pole where they were definitely not wanted.

I got a ladder and climbed up to the nest on our point and when I came down I apologized to Catbird for my unjust suspicions. For in the nest I had found not only the arrow, but my bamboo garden rake, three T shirts belonging to my boys and a Plaza Hotel bath towel. Apparently nothing was too unusual for the ospreys to steal for their nest building. But our birds were definitely gone and showed no intention of returning. I went back to my Audubon and it told me the following:

“Osprey (fish hawk) Pandion haliaetus, length 23 inches, wingspread about 6.5 feet, weight 3.5 pounds.

“Identification--in flight the wings appear long and the outer half has a characteristic backward sweep.

“Habits--(age 21 years) Provided they are not molested, ospreys will nest wherever there is a reasonably extensive body of clear water and some sort of elevated nest sites exist. The birds have little fear of man and are excellent watchdogs, cheeping loudly at intruders and driving off crows and other birds of prey. For this reason platforms on tall poles are often erected to encourage them to nest about homes and farmyards. Their food consists entirely of fish. These they spot from heights of thirty to one hundred feet, then, after hovering for a moment, they half close their wings, and plunge into the water. The fish is seized in their talons, the toes of which are used in pairs, two to a side. This and the rough surface of the foot gives them a firm grip on the most slippery prey. After a catch, they rise quickly . . . and arrange the fish head first.”

There followed a list of the kinds of fish they eat and their range of habits. Those were our boys, all right.

I must admit I had been pleased and a little proud to have my own osprey nest, apart from being able to watch them fish. I had planned to observe the nestlings when they arrived. The empty nest on the point was a matter of sorrow and perplexity to me. The summer was a little darkened by the empty nest, and later the winter winds ripped at its half-completed messiness.

It was in February of 1956 that the answer came to me. If people put up platforms on poles, why could I not build a nest so attractive as to be irresistible to any passing osprey with procreation on his mind? Why could I not win back my own birds from the uncomfortable nest which the power company had meanwhile torn off the transformer? I had been to Denmark and had seen what the country people there did for storks. And the storks loved them for it and their young on the roof tops and year by year brought luck to their benefactors.

In the late winter I went to work. Climbing the oak tree on the point, I cleaned away the old debris of the nest. Then I mounted and firmly wired in place horizontally on a large wagon wheel. I cut dry pampas grass stalks and bound them in long faggots. Then with the freezing blasts of winter tearing at my clothes, I reascended the tree and wove the impulses, I should have found irrestible.

My wife, dressed in warm clothes, stood dutifully on the ground under the trees and hooked bundles of reeds on the line I threw down to her. she has a highly developed satiric sense which on other occasions, I have found charming. She shouted up against the howling wind: “If anybody sees you, a middle-aged man, up a tree in midwinter, building a nest, I will have trouble explaining it to a sanity commission.”

Misplaced humor can, under some circumstances, almost amount to bad taste. Silently and doggedly I completed what I believe was the handsomest nest in the Western Hemisphere. Then I went back to my sun porch to await eventualities.

I did have some difficulty explaining the project to my boys. To my oldest son Thom’s question, “Why do you build nests for birds?” I could only jocularly reply, “Well, I can build a better nest than they can, but I can’t lay eggs, so you see we have to get together.”

The winter was long and cold and there was hardly any spring at all. Summer came without warning about June first. I had trouble with the move I was writing since I had to rush constantly to the telescope to see whether the ospreys, my prospective tenants, had returned.

Then school was out and my boys moved to Sag Harbor and I put them on watch. One morning Catbird charged into my study, which is a corner of the garage.

“Ospreys!” he shouted. “Come running-ospreys!”

“sh!” I shouted back “Keep our voice down. You’ll disturb them.”

I rushed for my telescope, bowling Catbird over in my rush and tripping over Thom’s feet.

There were the ospreys all right. But they weren’t settling into my beautiful nest. They were dismantling it tearing it to pieces, lifting out the carefully bound reed pads and carrying them across the bay and propping them clumsily on top of the same transformer.

Of course my feelings were hurt. Why should I deny it? And on top of all my work. But on the heels of injury came anger. Those lousy, slipshod, larcenous birds, those ingrates, those-those ospreys. My eyes strayed to the shotgun that hangs over my fireplace, but before I could reach for it a Machiavellian thought came to me.

I wanted to hurt the ospreys, yes. I wanted revenge on them, but with number-four shot? No. I ached to hurt them as they had hurt me in their feelings-psychologically.

I am an adept at psychological warfare, I know well how to sink the knife into sensibilities. I was coldy quiet, even deadly in my approach and manner, so that my boys walked about under a cloud and Thom asked, “What’s the matter, Father, did you lose some money playing poker?”

“You stay out of the garage,” I said quietly.

I had made my plan. I declared the garage off limits to everyone. My novel came to a dead stop. Daily I worked in the garage using pieces of worked in the garage using pieces of chicken wire and a great deal of plaster of Paris.

Then I paid a call on my neighbor, Jack Ramsey, a very good painter, and asked him to come to my work shop and to bring his palette and brushes. At the end of two days we emerged with our product-a life-size perfect replica of a nesting whooping crane. It is my belief that there are only thirty-seven of these rare and wonderful birds in the world. Well, this was the thirty-eighth.

Chuckling evilly I hoisted the plaster bird up in the tree and wired her firmly in the nest where her blinding white body, black tail and brilliant red mask stood out magnificently against the sky, I had even made her bill a little over large to take care of foreshortening.

Finally I went back to the sun porch and turned my telescope on the ospreys who pretended to go about their nest building on the transformer as though nothing had happened . But I knew what must be going on over there, Although they kept up their facade of listlessness, and I must say they were building an even messier nest than usual.

Mrs. Osprey was saying, “Lord almighty, George! Look who has moved into the apartment you didn’t want. Why did I listen to you?

To which he was replying, “I didn’t want--what do you mean I didn’t want? It was you who said the neighborhood wasn’t good enough. Don’t you put words in my mouth, Mildred.”

“Everybody knows you have no taste or background,” she was replying. “Your Uncle Harry built his nest over a slaughterhouse.”

And I laughed to myself. These are the wounds that never heal. This is psychological warfare as it should be fought.

Two days later, Thom came running into my study in the garage.

“The nest,” he cried. “Look at the nest.”

I bolted for the door. The ospreys in jealous rage were dive-bombing my whooping crane, but all they could accomplish was the breaking of their talons on the hard surface of the plaster. Finally they gave up and flew away, followed by my shouts of derision.

I did hear my oldest boy say to his brother, “Father has been working too hard. He has gone nuts.”

Catbird replied, “His id has been ruptured. Sometimes one broods too much on a subject and throws the whole psychic pattern into an uproar.”

That isn’t quite where it rests.

It is true that the ospreys have not attacked any more, but we have had other visitors, human visitors.

One morning I looked out the window to see a rather stout lady in khaki trousers and a turtle-neck sweater creeping across my lawn on her hands and knees. Field glasses dangled from her neck and she held a camera in front of her. When I went out to question her, she angrily waved me away.

“Go back,” she whispered hoarsely, “Do you want her to fly away.”

“But you don’t understand ---” I began.

“Will you keep your voice down,” she said hoarsely. “Do you know what that is? The club will never believe me. If I don’t get a picture of her I’ll kill you.”

Yes, we have had bird watchers--lots of them. You see, our whooping crane can be sighted from a long way off. After a time they discovered the nature of the thing, but they would not listen to my explanation of the ruse. In fact, they became angry; not at the ospreys, where the blame rests--but at me.

As I write, it is autumn of 1956 and from the coldness and the growing winds, an early winter and a cold one is indicated. I have taken my whooping crane down and restored the nest to its old beauty. When the spring comes again--we shall see what we shall see. No one can say that I am unforgiving. The nest is ready and waiting. Let us see whether the ospreys are big enough to let bygones be bygones.

My wife says that if she has to go through another year like this she will- no, I won’t tell you what she says. Sometimes her sense of humor seems a little strained. THE END