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Danger In the Nest: Osprey & Baling Twine

a pair of osprey on a nesting platform. One is flying in with a fish.

What is baling twine?


Baling twine is a strong, thin rope that is used to hold together bales of hay. Today, it is most commonly made of many fine strands of polypropylene, a plastic polymer. Polypropylene baling twine can take half a century (or longer) to break down- much longer than the natural lifespan of an Osprey.


When discarded baling twine is left in a field or pasture, Osprey will pick it up to use as nesting material, lining the nest and building it up. This can have devastating consequences for the birds.

Why is baling twine dangerous for Osprey?


Osprey sometimes use bits of human refuse as nesting material: bathing suits, flip-flops, fishing line and plastic balloon ribbons, rubber gloves, a copy of the local newspaper still in its plastic bag—and their favorite here in the West: baling twine. It is thought that Osprey consider these to be similar enough to their natural nesting materials that they pick them up and bring them home. Baling twine is abundant in many Osprey nests on artificial platforms near agricultural areas where it is commonly used, as Osprey pick up nesting material from within about half a mile of their nest.


Since baling twine is plastic, it is extremely difficult to snap or break, and it doesn’t break down quickly in inclement weather—qualities that make it ideal for holding together hay bales, but can be deadly for Osprey if they get tangled in it. Though Osprey have sharp talons and beaks, they’re not sharp enough to cut through the twine—Osprey talons meant for puncturing and ripping apart fish, not cutting through rope (think ice picks, not box cutters).


Adult Osprey tangled in baling twine can become unable to fly and trapped in their nest (or stuck dangling from the nest) or can slowly lose toes—or a leg—due to cut-off circulation. When the chicks are tangled, they are less able to move around in the nest, which means they are less able to get to food their parents bring back, and they can slowly be outcompeted by their larger siblings and starve. If the baling twine is wrapped tight around a leg or wing, the chicks can lose limbs or toes, which means they won’t be able to hunt and will slowly starve if they make it to adulthood. It’s estimated that up to 10% of osprey chicks in the West will die from baling twine in the nest.

What can you do to prevent Osprey from picking up baling twine?


Unfortunately, it’s hard to convince Osprey that baling twine doesn’t make for good nest material (believe us, we’ve tried!).

However, there are a few other things we can do to help make the world safer for osprey and their chicks:


Pick up baling twine and other trash (such as fishing line), especially along rivers, lakes, and in fields

  • Consider organizing a trash pick-up day with your local Audubon chapter, birding group, or birding group. Some areas have local watershed or river clean-up days organized by boating or fishing groups. Keeping the areas around our streams, rivers, and lakes clean and free of human trash and waste helps not only the osprey and the fish they rely on, but all the other wildlife that depend on these habitats areas. And, they’re much nicer for human recreation and use as well!

  • After you pick up the trash, help the Osprey make good nesting material choices by leaving appropriate nesting material around. Consider this permission to do less yard work: leave moss and trees with lichen on them, and, when safe, leave dead trees on your property. Osprey build their nest out of sticks, and line them with soft mosses, lichen, and grasses. Lots of other birds will nest in dead standing trees, so you’ll benefit many species of birds, not just the Osprey.


Start a baling twine recycling program

  • Not only does recycling baling twine help Osprey and other wildlife, it also benefits ranchers, farmers, and others who have livestock or horses. Baling twine typically ends up in a landfill, piles up on a landowner’s property (where it can gum up machinery or be eaten by livestock and cattle, causing serious digestive issues or death), or is burned (which is unsafe, due to the toxic fumes emitted).


Learn more:


Donate to an organization that works with Osprey and other raptors


Watch the Osprey cams on Explore.org

  • Support Explore.org and check out their cams. We rely on our dedicated cam viewers and moderators to help us keep an eye on the osprey, and without their detailed observations we would not have known the chick was in trouble as quickly as we did.


Support local businesses with bucket trucks/cherry pickers

  • It takes many caring people to help these birds, and we couldn’t have accessed the nesting platform without the assistance of Chad and Sarah of Chadz Wraps and Signs in St. Ignatius, MT, and Rick Jennison of Rick Jennison Tree Service in Ronan, MT.

It is important to remember that we humans share our homes and favorite outdoor places with other living creatures. Our small actions can have devastating repercussions we may not ever realize. But, we can co-exist in ways that benefit us all.


Please, pick up your baling twine and other litter!