WALLINGFORD — An osprey nest atop a cell phone tower on North Plains Industrial Road is causing service issues for Sprint Nextel customers in town, prompting some local residents to question the service provider and attempt to void their multi-year contracts.
The 220-foot tower, owned by the American Tower Corp., is in the parking lot of R&L Carriers at 90 N. Plains Industrial Road. A large nest is visible at the very top of the tower. Rachael Crocker, a spokeswoman for Sprint Nextel, confirmed Friday that an osprey is nesting on the tower. The nest is causing cell service for customers in the area to be “on and off,” she said, because it leads to signals from a range extender to bounce, “so the signal is doing the same thing.”
The service extending device was installed on the tower in March, Crocker said. At the time, there was no nest. But a nest has been built on the tower every year for the last decade, said Stu Somers, a driver for R&L Carriers who has observed the osprey during the evenings this past summer when he returns from his daily runs. Ospreys can have a wingspan up to six feet. Their nests are normally about five feet wide.
“I think it’s interesting they live right there,” Somers said. “I wouldn’t want to climb up there and go face-to-face with it.”
It’s not unusual for ospreys to nest in cell towers, said Jenny Dickson, a wildlife biologist for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Ospreys are federally protected and normally live by the shoreline, but “they’re moving inland more and more,” she said. The species usually returns to the same location to nest every summer before heading south for the winter. The osprey nesting season usually ends in mid-September, Dickson said. Because of their protected status, ospreys cannot be removed from cell towers until they leave their nests to migrate south, she added.
Sprint Nextel is patiently waiting for the osprey to leave its nest, Crocker said.
“Teams are watching the bird,” she said. “As soon as it leaves, they will go up to fix the equipment.”
For some local Sprint Nextel customers, the osprey’s migration can’t come soon enough.
“I didn’t think too much of it at first,” Kim Tefft, a resident of Meadow Street, said about service issues that started occurring in late August. “Text messages were slow or weren’t going through.”
But once September came around, “It got really bad,” she said. Calls began going straight to voicemail or would fail. Text messages weren’t working at all. Conversations were garbled, Tefft said, and issues persist to this day.
“If you’re not near Wallingford, it’s better,” she said.
It’s not just a convenience issue for Tefft, who said she missed a call from the school her daughter attends about an early dismissal.
“It ticked me off,” she said.
Christina Pelliccio, of Christian Street, has also experienced several minor emergencies recently because of Spring Nextel cell service in the area. When Pelliccio’s daughter was rushed to the doctor for a broken wrist, she missed the doctor’s call due to lack of service.
Texts would take several hours to arrive, she said, and “I wasn’t getting phone calls, but I was getting notifications for voicemails.”
Both Pelliccio and Tefft said they have attempted to call Sprint Nextel to figure out why they are having problems. Both said that they are unhappy with the service provider’s response.
“I’ve spent countless hours on the phone trying to resolve the issue and it’s not getting better,” Pelliccio said.
Both women have asked to be let out of their contracts, but were told they can’t exit their multi-year deals without a fee. Small credits were offered, the women said, but what’s most important is that they have decent cell phone reception. Tefft doesn’t use a landline at all. Sprint Nextel sent her a device that amplifies service within a 2,500-foot radius, she said, but that’s not helpful anywhere else in town.
Malfunctions at another cell site in Wallingford have caused Sprint Nextel customers service issues, Crocker said, but that technical problem has since been resolved. Customers with concerns can call customer service and attempt to receive credits to their bill, she said.
“I would say that customer care would look at each situation on a case-by-case basis,” Crocker said.
Nesting birds “are a common occurrence on our towers,” said Jenna Metznik, director of regulatory compliance at American Tower Corp. Because they are so common, “we have a whole program dedicated to protecting birds and our workers,” she said.
The company does its best to help maintain a good service level for cell providers. When the nesting period ends, “we will assist in removing an inactive nest,” she said.
In 2007, a young male osprey caught a quarter-inch of its talon in a grate on the tower in Wallingford. American Tower Corp. provided a bucket truck that allowed bird rescue worker Jae D. Wolf to reach about 165 feet in the air to the injured bird. The osprey was taken by wildlife rehabilitator Grace Krick to the Tufts University wildlife clinic in North Grafton, Mass., where the bird was diagnosed with a dislocated hip. The osprey was euthanized because veterinarians determined it would never be able to use its leg again.
The rescue didn’t end well, said state Rep. Mary M. Mushinsky, D-Wallingford. In response to the incident, “I asked the company to change their design” to a different grate pattern so future osprey would not get caught. The company never responded to an email, Mushinsky said.
As a wildlife enthusiast, Mushinsky has watched ospreys living on the Wallingford cell tower in recent years. The ospreys in Wallingford feed on fish in the Quinnipiac River and Community Lake, as well as in storm detention basins along Interstate 91 in North Haven. The species almost went extinct at one point, she said. When Mushinsky was a biology student at Southern Connecticut State University in 1972, there were only a few adult ospreys left in the state. Once the state and federal government banned DDT, which weakens eggshells in bird species, ospreys were once again able to reproduce and repopulate.
Ospreys “take to man made things very readily,” Mushinsky said.
Attempts have been made to use deterrents on cell towers, Metznik said, but “it seems the birds always find a way to work around them.”
Such deterrents include sound devices, plastic spikes and dummy predators. Whatever is used only works temporarily, Metznik said. “Next nesting season, the birds find a way back.”
While Sprint Nextel and American Tower Corp. have said they are waiting for the osprey to leave its nest before removing it, Mushinsky and Dickson said the osprey living in the tower has likely already migrated. While observing the tower for several hours over a two-day span last week, a Record-Journal photographer did not spot the osprey.
“Pick it up and move it,” Pelliccio said of the nest. “I don’t see the harm in that.”