For the Birds: Osprey - Our Great Fishing Hawk

Monday, May 2, 2022

Osprey flying. Photo by Rick Brauer
By Christine Southwick

Have you heard a large bird loudly calling while flying? Does it have long wings reminiscent of a gull, but flies a little bouncier? As you watch more closely - is it white underneath and has a distinct brown eye stripe? If you are lucky enough, it might even be carrying a fish headfirst. Congratulations, you have just spotted one of “our” nesting Osprey!

Bass for breakfast. Photo by Doug Parrott
Ospreys that nest here usually winter in South America and begin arriving here in late March to early April. 

The male arrives first and selects the nest site (or starts adding branches to their old nest). They usually mate for life.

Osprey are found on every continent, except Antarctica, wherever there is good fishing and high open places for nests. 

Unlike other hawks, Osprey readily use artificial nesting platforms, light towers or cell towers on which to build their nests, which can become massive over years of repeated use.

Osprey feeding young. Photo by Doug Parrott
They need that open space since their flying is perfected for successful diving and catching fish, often from high up, talons extended, which reduces some maneuverability.

Ospreys will fish in fresh or salt water and can carry fish as far as twelve miles to their nests. 

Studies have found that Ospreys have very high fishing success rates. 

Ospreys can fish down to about three feet deep, giving them a distinct advantage over Bald Eagles which fish near the surface.

Ospreys live almost exclusively on fish, and to carry their fish they have a reversible outer toe that allows them to grasp slippery fish with two toes in front and two behind. This also allows them to hold the fish headfirst, thus reducing wind drag.

Osprey, juvie lesson landing in tree.
Photo by Peggy Bartleson
Osprey eggs hatch serially, which gives the first born a survival advantage in times of bad fishing, which can happen when bad weather makes fishing unsuccessful. 

They usually have two or three young each season.

It takes up to 42 days for the eggs to hatch, and another 50 some days before the nestlings leave the nest. 

Unlike most fledglings, these youngsters keep returning to their nest often until they migrate. 

Both parents feed them, teach them how to fish, and carry their catch.

The parents migrate, separately, leaving the youngsters to find their own way southward. The juveniles usually stay south for their next year.

The name “Osprey” has been around since at least 1460 and means “bird of prey” (avis prede).


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