Osprey watching helps seniors fight loneliness, with an assist from schoolkids

St. Joseph Elementary School fourth-grade student Zachary Munding reads an article about a bear climbing the pole to the ospreys nest to Missoula Valley Community resident Richard McCann. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

When SuzAnne Miller started recording an osprey nest at Dunrovin Ranch in 2011, she never imagined it would be so popular with online viewers.

The nest sits on a 45-foot pole at the guest ranch and has been home to Harriett, a female osprey, every spring since 2010. The ranch now has five cameras that continuously record the osprey and her mate, Hal, and the natural landscapes nearby.

“Even though I live here, I’m not in charge, nature’s in charge,” said Miller, the owner of Dunrovin Ranch. “On a ranch, you don’t get to be in charge, the animals and nature are in charge.”

The Awesome Osprey program uses the remote cameras and live video feed to engage viewers in chat rooms to discuss the birds’ hatchlings and daily activities.

When a school of 700 children in Santa Ana, California, started watching the osprey online, Miller decided to make a program that involved other schools.

Missoula Valley Community assisted-living resident Barbara E. Obach plays “osprey bingo” on Thursday May 30, 2019. Fourth-grade students from St. Joseph Elementary School made bingo cards to play with their senior partners during their visit through the Awesome Ospreys program. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

A fourth-grade class at St. Joseph Elementary in Missoula got senior citizens in assisted-living communities to participate as well.

Soon, the nest created a community that Miller calls the “cyber front porch,” and it’s helping people stay connected both in and out of the online chat room.

“What this has proven to do is dispel loneliness among seniors,” Miller said. “Loneliness is a huge issue. Our society has really fractured communities and people are isolated from their nuclear families often, and when you get old, you’re often taken away from your community.”

The classroom curriculum teaches about osprey and collects data about Dunrovin’s resident pair as students watch the nest online.

Last Thursday, the St. Joseph School students visited Missoula Valley Community, an assisted-living facility on American Way in Missoula, and talked to seniors about what they learned. Fourth-grade teacher Katie Wardisiani said the program teaches students about science and nature while also encouraging them to interact with others.

Their class is the first in the program to visit seniors.

“If not for the osprey, none of this would have happened,” Wardisiani said. “This all started with the nest at the ranch.”

George Scott, who lives in the assisted-living community, said he watches the osprey camera twice a day, and enjoys interacting with the students.

Scott fished and floated the Blackfoot River for years and remembers watching osprey fly overhead.

Missoula Valley Community assisted-living resident Richard McCann watches the live stream of ospreys feeding their newly hatched baby on Thursday May 30, 2019. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

“When they started this program, it was natural that I continued to watch them,” Scott said. “As a senior resident, it’s good for me to be able to associate with other people, and I’ve especially enjoyed the grade school kids coming in.”

In November, Miller hopes to apply for a grant from the National Science Foundation to further build the program and create a platform that any school can use.

The three-year project will include building a team and upgrading the cameras and online systems. Spreading the word first in Montana and then from the West Coast to the East Coast is the goal.

Right now, about 15 classes use the osprey curriculum. With enough support, the program also aims to attract investors.

“What I’m really looking for are investors to help me make this a sustainable benefit corporation that will provide relief of loneliness for seniors,” Miller said. “I need people to realize that this should be in retirement communities across the United States.”

In 2014, Harriet’s mate was killed by an eagle. She did not find another mate until a few years ago. When the curriculum started, 54 classes tuned in to watch the osprey.

According to a viewer survey, 52 percent preferred watching the osprey to watching television.

“We’re creating a place with shared memories and with what I call, ‘edu-tainment,’ ” Miller said. “We just have fun and we do fun things.”

Other than the students, who get free access to video and curriculum, the streaming service has about 400 paying members, and a majority of them are seniors. About 800,000 viewers tuned in during one season to watch the osprey. 

It’s all about meeting in one place for those who may not be able to travel to connect with their fellow nest-watchers.

“It’s filling a huge need in a really authentic way,” Miller said. “What I’ve done is build a self-help network. Nobody has to take care of them, everyone takes care of each other. They become friends, and when they become friends, you’re no longer lonely.”

Contact reporter Mari Hall via email at mari.hall@missoulacurrent.com.