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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Treehugger Tuesday

Unflappable Raptor Puts Cellphone Carriers on Hold

Osprey Nests, Weighing Up to Half a Ton, Impede Wireless Upgrade
The Wall Street Journal

Sprint Nextel Corp. is racing to build a complicated new coast-to-coast cellphone network. The carrier could move faster if it weren't for the birds.

It turns out the same towers Sprint is rigging with high-speed wireless technology to compete with Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc. are a favorite nesting spot for ospreys. The big fish-eating raptors favor high perches with a clear approach—exactly what network engineers look for when putting up cellular sites.

An osprey nests atop a telecommunications tower in New Jersey.

Throw in a flat top surrounded by railings, a typical design for cell towers, and you've got what looks like "nirvana to an osprey," said Eric Stiles, head of the New Jersey Audubon Society.

The nests, basically just big piles of sticks, can be large enough to house a full-grown person and weigh up to half a ton. And once they have settled on a spot, ospreys are tough to evict.

Dage Blixt, supervisory wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Virginia, advises companies on removing osprey nests. He knows firsthand how hard it can be. Mr. Blixt once cleared a nest only to be called back later after the persistent birds had reassembled their home using the same sticks. These days, when he dismantles a nest, he bags up the nesting material, drives it away in a truck and dumps it in the woods.

"If they are going to rebuild, they are going to have to work for it," he says.

Sprint's osprey problem is only the latest entanglement between big birds and big business. In 2004, the country's largest nuclear plant was knocked off line by a chain of events that officials said began with an unidentified bird on a transmission line and ended with blackouts across the Southwest.

Oregon-based utility PacifiCorp, owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., had to pay out more than $10 million in fines and equipment fees after accidentally electrocuting hundreds of golden eagles on its power lines between 2007 and 2009.

Now it is the telecom industry's turn. Ospreys have put their wings in the way as carriers are in the middle of rare, multiyear network upgrades—installation of a technology called LTE that promises superfast Web browsing. Demand for LTE service is expected to rise quickly after Apple Inc. touted the technology as a key attribute of its iPhone 5 unveiled last week.

Verizon's LTE network already covers three-quarters of the U.S. population. But Sprint is just getting started, putting pressure on the company to work fast. The ospreys, protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, have Sprint on hold at about 700 sites.

The avian delays have become a running joke with Wall Street. At an investor conference Sept. 12, Sprint Chief Financial Officer Joseph Euteneuer went back and forth with Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst David Barden over migrating birds. "A headwind?" Mr. Barden asked. "Yes, that's one of our bigger ones," Mr. Euteneuer replied, laughing.

Ospreys sport wingspans of almost six feet and plunge dramatically into water to catch their prey. Shakespeare referenced their "sovereignty of nature" in "Coriolanus." Less celebrated is their reputation for being as stubborn as mules.

The birds ignore netting strung around cell towers, return year after year after wintering as far away as South America to the exact same spot and are unusually unflappable for big birds of prey.

Jeff Skriletz, district wildlife biologist for Washington State's Department of Fish and Wildlife, remembers a time in the late 1990s when state employees were called in after a train derailed into the Columbia River. Overhead, a pair of ospreys went about building their nest as cranes and other heavy machinery pulled rail cars out of the water.

"In the heat of this panic repair with all this huge equipment hammering and smashing and maybe 100 people swarming around, the birds kept flying in with sticks right over this mob," he said. The real marvel, he said, came during a briefing for workers under the osprey nest.

"They stopped and actually mated over the speaker's head," Mr. Skriletz said. "Talk about tuning out everything around you."

CenturyLink Inc. had an osprey nest on a cell tower in Vashon Island, near Seattle, burst into flames for unknown reasons in June. The birds have since rebuilt their nest on the same location, a spokeswoman said.

Ospreys were threatened by DDT but have rebounded since the pesticide was banned in the U.S. four decades ago. Even so, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects their nests, eggs and feathers, even on private property.

Inactive nests generally can be removed in the fall. But some states like Florida, where the birds don't migrate south, have more stringent rules. As many as 45% of Florida's cellphone towers are home to osprey nests, contractor Bechtel Corp. estimates.

Rick Friday, who runs Arkansas-based Friday Tower, recounted a surprise found by his crew in Louisiana. "They climbed up the tower and about halfway up, they realized there was a bird and babies on it," he said. "We left that site for three months."

Carriers typically wait till the birds fly away for the season then try to dismantle the nest and keep them from returning. It is easier said than done.

Bechtel puts up nets to keep ospreys away, but the persistent nesters just build on top of them. PacifiCorp tries to lure the birds away from their existing nesting sites by building nesting platforms. It uses old power poles and asks local Boy Scouts, as part of their Eagle Scout certification program, to build the plywood platforms. A PacifiCorp spokesman says the company builds about 50 a year.

New Jersey issued its own guidelines earlier this year for dealing with nests on cell towers. Kathy Clark, a biologist overseeing the program at the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, says companies should pair deterrents on their towers with alternative sites for nests.

None of it works.

"At some point someone is going to make a reliable deterrent," Ms. Clark said. "It sounds like a great business opportunity."

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