Driven to Brood? What is up with Electra?

The extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest have caused many of us to worry about the female ospreys who have lost chicks these past couple of days. There has been particular concern over Electra, the female at the Cowlitz PUD Osprey Nest in Longview, Washington.

I have had many questions or notes from individuals who care and worry about Electra. Those have prompted me to consider every aspect of this horrific week on the Cowlitz nest. But, before I begin, I want to go to the writing of Nan Shepherd. Have you heard of her?

Nan Shepherd was born in 1893 and lived her entire life around Aberdeen, Scotland, in her childhood home in West Cults.

“File:Gate, West Cult – geograph.org.uk – 440270.jpg” by Richard Webb is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Shepherd died in 1981. She lectured in English at what is now the Aberdeen College of Education. Shepherd was also a writer and an avid traveller. The book of hers that I am reading is The Living Mountain. Shepherd ‘knew’ the Cairngorms of Scotland as if they were spots on her tired hands.

“Cairngorm Plateau” by Mr Moss is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“Cairngorms” by chuckrock123 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Shepherd describes in one chapter watching two large stags at dusk fighting. Their horns were interlocked so that neither could get away. The falling, the pushing, the sounds.

“Cairngorm Reindeer” by Robin McConnell is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Shepherd went back the following day to ‘see what had happened’ to find nothing. No dead buck, no blood, nothing. And because of that, she would never know.

Shepherd believed that we need to allow ourselves to accept that there are mysteries of nature that we will never understand. She tells many stories to make that point and, so it is, that I once again return to the mystery or non-mystery of Electra.

For those of you that do not know who Electra is, she is the mate of Wattsworth at the Cowlitz PUD Osprey Nest. This year two chicks hatched on the nest. The first chick died due to siblicide and the second died of heat stroke. Electra had left the nest to get fish and the chick could not regulate its temperature. Both chicks were undernourished and that fact alone hastened the second’s death due to the extreme heat from the sun on its little underdeveloped body for its age. This nest does not have a good track record in terms of fledging chicks. We can only speculate that if Wattsworth had been bringing sufficient fish and helping with the care of the babies, this nest might have fledged two chicks. But, that was not the case and the mystery of why Wattsworth is such a poor mate will remain.

Each of us has tried to understand if Electra is mourning, trying to re-bond with her mate after the death of her chicks, or driven by hormones to still feed and brood her baby. I say ‘baby’ because there appeared to be a clear understanding that the earlier chick had died. The fact that Electra has returned to the nest where the bodies of her two chicks are in the extreme heat of the Pacific Northwest is troubling to many. It is the worry over Electra’s welfare that has driven so much concern for her. That concern has been intensified with the death now of the middle chick at the Osoyoos Osprey Nest. That nest lost all three babies. So many we know and many more we don’t know about have sadly perished in the extreme heat wave in the area.

Here are three images taken in the last couple of hours of Electra at the Cowlitz nest.

As Nan Shepherd stresses – there are mysteries of nature that we as humans will never understand. What any of us believe about Electra is based on our experience with Ospreys and other large raptors – watching their behaviour. But not one of us will ever be able to ‘get into the head of’ these amazing birds.

One of my readers, ‘S’, has closely observed Electra’s behaviour including watching her brood the chick yesterday. I also observed Electra brooding the first chick that died with the surviving one under her tail the day it died. I took everyone’s observations and formulated a question on one of the Osprey FB groups hoping to get a response from Tiger Mozone – and I did. Tiger likes data and he has been following Ospreys for a long time. His memory is acute and encyclopedic. Generously, Tiger answered my question with an example and, of course, that example got me to thinking about other Ospreys and Eagles. Tiger’s response was “I would think that the reason is that the female is strongly in brooding mode and this does not happen immediately (he is referring to her stopping going to the nest). His supporting example was of the female on the Loch Garden Osprey Nest in 2015. The eggs were lost because of intruders and in the absence of eggs, Tiger says, “EJ brooded an eggshell.”

Tiger gave me the timelines of the issues at Loch Garten that led to this. Please do read the entries. Chloe B and Tiger Mozone’s files are very educational.

https://www.imagicat.com/LGstats2015.html?fbclid=IwAR0fbpRpzfsovmOZxt1cLxtV5ZcH2QH9mAgCB_djt1-pkpdwJ-2F4xljTNE

Many of you will have followed other Osprey nests or the nests of other raptors. You might remember that Gabby at NE Florida Bald Eagle Nest this year incubated an unviable egg for several months. Indeed, little Legacy learned to roll and incubate the egg and care for it, too. Samson finally got fed up with ‘Eggbert’ and buried it in the nest. At the Big Bear Bald Eagle Nest, Shadow and Jackie incubated eggs for months – almost all one summer – that were not viable. The urge to incubate unviable eggs eventually goes away as live chicks get bigger and older. But to a female that has lost chicks in the nest like Electra, the urge to brood and care for them remains strong. EJ continued to incubate her eggshell for eleven days til she stopped, the urge and hormones having passed. So these are examples of females incubating unviable eggs. It is assumed that the brooding behaviour is, thus, as strong if not stronger.

I wonder now if the mother at Osoyoos will return to the nest and brood her chicks? I do not know precisely when the last chick at this nest passed. The female was still trying to shade the baby at 18:30 when I took this screen shot but it could have already died.

You can see that the mother is extremely hot. She is panting heavily and her eyes are drooped. She flew off the nest at 19:08. I have no doubt that it was at least 47 degrees C on that nest. Both of these females – Electra and the mother at Osoyoos – need to cool off in the water by bathing and hydrate themselves by eating if it is possible to catch fish in this heat and with the glaring sun on the water. Their survival instincts will kick in. Still, they may return to the nest for many more days.

Thank you for joining me as we try to see into some of the mysteries of what is driving Electra to remain on a nest in such heat. Tomorrow there are a lot of nests to check on. Fledge alerts will be sounding at Rutland and Richmond and Rosie’s nest on the Whirley Crane for sure. Please take care of yourself. Stay cool. Be safe. See you soon.

Thank you to the Cowlitz PUD for their streaming cam where I took my screen shots and also to the Town of Osoyoos and Fortis BC for their streaming cam.

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