Ospreys are magnificent fish-eating birds with a cosmopolitan range.
The Osprey is a unique raptor, and we’re in awe of these incredible birds not only for their stunning beauty, quirky personality, and lifestyle living near the water but also for its choice of prey.
Lone Rangers of Raptors
Osprey (Pandion Haliaëtus) are the “Lone Rangers of Raptors” because one of the bird’s most recognizable physical characteristics is the black mask extending from its eye, around its head and through its neck resembling the iconic mask worn by the outlaw-fighting Texas Ranger.
Even though these birds resemble hawks or small eagles from a distance and are referred to as “Sea Hawks,” “Fish Hawks” or “Fish Eagles,” Ospreys are none of those.
These unique birds aren’t worthy of that comparison because they’re much more skilled anglers than those birds.
Osprey has such sharp vision it can see fish underwater for as high up as 130 feet.
And they’re tenacious and strong with quirky personalities.
These gorgeous fish-eating birds have skillfully mastered the art of catching fish with such grace and style.
First, they fly or hover over the water from high up.
Then, when it spots its prey, the Osprey will hover in a spiral downward and dive into the water feet-first, submerging themselves entirely underwater in the pursuit of sushi.
After a successful strike, the Osprey lock the fish in its curved talons.
It rises heavily from the water carrying the fish head-forward with its feet to reduce wind resistance to its nest or the closest place where it can land to eat its sushi meal.
Traits of Skilled Fisherman
Ospreys have long, narrow, strong wings that enable them to fly in place so they can take their time “fishing.”
Their nostrils (nares) are also long and narrow, and capable of closing when the bird plunges into the water.
The bird’s long, narrow wings are critical for getting back out of the water and designed to be extra-powerful as they try to lift off to the surface with a heavy fish in their talons.
On Osprey’s feet are the fish-catching tools themselves and are different from most other raptors.
Their toes are all equal length, and its talons are uniformly rounded instead of edged like most raptors and hooked rather than grooved making them most useful for fishing.
The Osprey has an outer toe that is reversible allowing them to grasp a slippery fish with two rows in front and two toes behind.
Their feet are covered in rough spicules that feel like coarse sandpaper helping the bird grip the slimy, wiggling fish.
As Osprey leg bones (tarsi) are longer than other raptors so they can extend their legs far in front of their faces when diving into the water feet-first.
Osprey Lift Off
An Osprey’s wings are long and broad like an Eagle’s wings to help them lift off after nabbing a fish.
But these birds do have a limit of 4 to 5 pounds if they want to get airborne with their catch.
Any catch heavier than that and they risk the possibility of drowning.
You’re probably wondering why the Osprey just doesn’t drop the fish if it weighs too much.
The osprey’s curved talons and the backward facing scales on their feet prevent them from letting go of their prey.
Mastering the Skill of Fishing
The Osprey is by far the best of all seabirds at fishing.
The bird is so skilled that the American Bald Eagle will lurk behind waiting for the Osprey to make a big catch and attack it causing the Osprey to drop its food.
The Eagle catches the fish before it hits the water.
Ospreys chose to make themselves at home on any tall structure.
It can be on top of a telephone pole, atop of a crane, in a fork in a tall tree, at the top of the San Francisco Bay Bridge and even on the infamous NASA sign.
These birds build their nests with great creativity and use anything from twigs, sticks, driftwood, and even seaweed.
Osprey as Patients
Ospreys are quite high strung and finicky (much like cats) and are not the best patients when in rehabilitation.
It takes much persuasion to get them to eat, and they make the silliest noises and expressions.
We’ve seen Osprey in the care of Christine’s Critters, a Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education non-profit in Weston, Connecticut.
The Osprey refused to eat its sushi meal until the humans left it alone to dine in private.
But once you remember how perfect they are in the natural environment, you again are in awe of this magnificent bird.
These skilled hunters are found on all continents except Antarctica.
Ospreys live near waterways.
Your best chances of seeing these magnificent birds are near rivers, lakes, and the coast.
You will see them near fresh or salt water where large numbers of fish are present.
These birds are most common around major coastal estuaries and salt marshes, but also regularly found around large lakes, reservoirs, rivers.
The Audubon Society lists the Osprey as a climate-endangered species.
Osprey, like the Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcons, was seriously endangered by effects of pesticides in the mid-20th century.
Since DDT and related pesticides were banned in 1972, Ospreys (and Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcone’s) have made a considerable comeback in many parts of North America.
Many wildlife organizations play an active role in helping to manage and protect Ospreys in the U.S.
Here’s a list of a few that need our help to protect these magnificent seabirds.
-Conserve Wildlife New Jersey – New Jersey Osprey Project
-Mass Audubon – Protecting and Researching Ospreys
-Connecticut Audubon – Enjoy the Live Osprey Cam
-Golden Gate Audubon Society – SF Bay Osprey – Enjoy the Osprey Cam
–The National Wildlife Federation
The Osprey’s scientific name is Pandion Haliaëtus.
Pandion is the name of the Greek hero changed into a bird of prey.
Haliaëtus. Hals – the sea. Aietos – an eagle.
Love those ospreys; thanks for the great info on them.
I enjoy watching and photographing the Osprey as well as the Bald Eagles. They are two of my favorite Raptors to photograph. I have just resentantly been
able to get the correct equipment to help me in my quest to photograph these marvelous creatures. Christine’s Critters as also been played a big part of helping me learn more about these magnificent Birds.
Great article and excellent photography. I’m a Park Ranger in Dubuque, Iowa, and I’m putting together and information panel to display next to our old hack tower. The info. panel concentrates on four topic, what is a hack tower, osprey form and life, conservation concern caused by DDT, and the successful reintroduction of osprey to our area. One of the photos I saw in this article would be perfect for the osprey form and life section of the panel, and I’m asking your permission to use the image, with photo credit tagged to the photo of course.
If you’re interested please contact me.