Of Red Sox and Ospreys

Y Tu, ospreys?

tampaosprey_01I’m sure I wasn’t the only New Englander who reacted with dismay to the decent news photo of a pair of ospreys building a nest on the lights above the Yankees spring training stadium in Tampa.  Ospreys are large black and white birds, known for their daring high dives for fish, and each year, around spring training, they migrate north from the tropics to New England just around the time our ballplayers migrate south. 

Many see them as a symbol of the New England coast, though this is a somewhat provincial view since they also nest prolifically up and down the entire East Coast, even, admittedly, on Long Island.  More apt is the notion of ospreys as the embodiment of comebacks, since their own return from the pesticide DDT was every bit as dramatic as the Sox’s return from dead when down 0-3 to the Yankees in 2004.  

The birds, almost entirely wiped out in New England by the early 1960s, are now back and thriving thanks to the 1972 ban on the pesticide by the then newly-formed Environmental Protection Agency (back when they were still in the business of actually protecting stuff).

I am a fan of both the birds and the Sox, and have noticed countless parallels in their respective lives and fates.  Not just that comebacks are central to both of their myths, but the fact that persistence and, often, failure are a large part of their annual odysseys.  Young birds, prodded by instinct, start to head south in early fall, about the same time the Red Sox
usually do. 

Chances of them returning each year is 1 in 3 

The odds of the birds arriving in South America and then returning to New England the next spring are low, about one in three, but the ones who survive live out a lesson in doggedness, continuing to make the eight thousand mile trip again and again, throughout their lives, despite the peril.  As it turned out it was during the glorious Red Sox fall of 2004 that I decided to follow the birds on their migration down to the coast to Cuba and Venezuela.  

Cuba is a central migratory corridor for ospreys and my time in the Sierra Masetra mountains was thrilling, the culmination of more than a decade of study.  But my last night in Cuba was spent in a seedy Havana hotel; the bed was uncomfortable, the room hot, and after I finally fell asleep in a pool of sweat I was awakened by a roar coming up from the streets. 

The next day I would realize that this was not due to some political rally for the glory of Castro’s Revolution but because the Yankees had won a playoff game in extra innings.  Thanks to their Cuban players, especially El Duque, the Yankees were a local favorite.  It occurred to me a couple of weeks later, after the Sox had won their historic four in a row,
that it must have been a sad day, not just in New York, but in Havana.

Steinbrenner and the Tampa Ospreys 

As for the spring training ospreys, Steinbrenner will no doubt act in characteristically ruthless fashion and have their nest torn down, if he hasn’t already.   But he may be in for a surprise.  One of the most appealing things about the birds is their commitment to their large shaggy nests. 

In the old days ospreys would sometimes build their nests in the chimneys of unused homes and when the owners would come back and burn them out, the birds would simply wait for the fire to die before starting to build again.  Ospreys defend these nests with passion and come back to them year after year, and while the birds are said to mate for life, most ornithologists believe that it is the commitment to the nest, not the mate, that keeps pairs together.  When the young birds fledge they migrate to South America, but when they return north two springs later they almost invariably build their own nests in the very same neighborhood as their parents.

In other words, unlike today’s free agents, they don’t switch loyalties easily.   They are homebodies.   They know where they are from and they stick to it.

Or, as a Boston friend put it, somewhat less poetically:
    “I hope that before they tear down the nest, they find time to crap on Johnny Damon’s head.

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