Birds are truly diverse, and have evolved unique hunting techniques to match that diversity – including the art of catching fish. Some birds stalk their prey in the shallows, and others soar above the water before dropping down to ambush their prey. In this article we explore 12 birds that catch fish. All these species can be found in North America, and we’ve included a range from large birds-of-prey to small, secretive forest birds.
12 Birds That Catch Fish
Scientific Name: Pandion haliaetus
The osprey, sometimes nicknamed the “sea hawk,” is an impressive example of a bird that specializes in eating fish. Their distinctive hunting technique involves hovering high above the water, scanning the surface with their keen eyesight, and then executing a spectacular plunge dive.
Ospreys are equipped with sharp, curved talons ideally suited for catching slippery fish. Their unique adaptation includes reversible outer toes, which allow them to rotate two of their toes forward and two backward, creating a more secure grip on their prey.
2. Bald eagle
Scientific Name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus
The bald eagle, America’s national bird, is not only majestic but also a formidable fisher. Although they have a varied and opportunistic diet, they prefer to dine on fish over other prey, making them a prominent figure in lake and coastal habitat where fish are plentiful. Salmon, catfish, herring and shad are just a few of the staple fish that make up their typical diet.
They often soar to great heights before quickly descending to snatch fish from the water’s surface. Their massive talons can exert crushing force, making sure that any squirming fish won’t escape.
3. Belted kingfisher
Scientific Name: Megaceryle alcyon
North America’s belted kingfisher is another captivating fisher with a distinctive rattling call, and their blue-gray plumage and shaggy crests make them easy to recognize. Kingfishers are found near freshwater bodies, where they relentlessly patrol for fish, while occasionally grabbing the odd frog, tadpole, or aquatic insect.
Belted kingfishers have perfected the art of the high-speed dive. They will perch on branches above water and peer down, waiting for their prey to swim below them. They then dive beak-first with exceptional speed and precision, emerging with small fish securely clutched in their beaks.
4. Northern Waterthrush
Scientific Name: Parkesia noveboracensis
You may not have realized it, but even some songbirds catch fish. These streaky little birds forage at the waters edge. They prefer still water in forested areas like wooded swamps and bogs, but will also seek out small, shallow streams. The northern waterthrush forages by wading into shallow water where they can grab prey from just below the surface, or search for prey under rocks, leaves and vegetation. Their varied diet includes aquatic insects, snails, salamaders, small fish, to name a few.
5. Louisiana Waterthrush
Scientific Name: Parkesia motacilla
Very similar to their northern cousins, the Louisiana waterthrush is another tiny forest bird that seeks out water to find its meals. These waterthrush live further south and spend summers in most of the eastern U.S. While the northern waterthrush prefers to hunt in still water, the Louisiana waterthrush loves the rush of moving water. Find them along forested creeks and streams, walking along the shallows and clinging to partially submerged rocks. Insects and insect larvae make up a lot of their diet, but they also eat worms, small fish, frogs, spiders and crayfish.
6. Great blue heron
Scientific Name: Ardea herodias
The great blue heron is a patient and graceful fisher that can be observed wading in shallow waters, often in wetlands, marshes, and along the shores of lakes and rivers. These statuesque birds use their long legs to quietly wade through shallow waters, patiently stalking their aquatic prey. Their slow, deliberate movements and incredible focus enable them to strike with astonishing accuracy, using their sharp, spear-like beak to capture fish. You may see them standing perfectly still for long periods of time, patiently waiting until a fish comes close enough to strike.
Scientific Name: Anhinga anhinga
Anhingas are commonly found in shallow, sheltered freshwater environments with trees, tall grasses and shrubs, such as mangroves, wetlands, swamps, and lagoons. In the U.S., you can find them in Florida and along the Gulf Coast. They often swim through the water with only their long neck showing above the surface, giving them the nickname “snake bird”. Anhinga’s main diet is fish, which they catch by slowly swimming underwater, then spearing them with their sharp bill. Despite all the time they spend in the water, they do not have waterproof feathers like ducks. After they are done swimming, they will stand on the shore and stretch out both wings to dry.
7. Double-crested cormorant
Scientific name: Nannopterum auritum
The Double-crested Cormorant is a large waterbird species found throughout much of North America. They have a long, slender body shape with dark feathers, orange skin around the base of their beak, a bright blue eye, and beak that ends in a small hook to help them catch fish.
Cormorants are excellent swimmers and divers, and they use their webbed feet to propel themselves through the water as they hunt for fish and other aquatic prey. They are also known for their unique behavior of holding their wings out to dry after swimming, which gives them a distinctive silhouette when perching.
8. Great egret
Scientific Name: Ardea alba
The great egret, with its bright white plumage and long, slender body and neck, is another hunter that frequents wetlands and shallow waters, similar to the great blue heron. Also similarly, these birds wade through the shallows, slowly and stealthily approaching their prey. They are found mainly in wetland habitats, either freshwater, brackish or marine.
When they spot a fish, they strike with incredible speed, using their long necks and sharp beaks to secure their meal. Along with fish, these egrets also eat reptiles, crayfish, shrimp, large insects and amphibians.
9. Brown pelican
Scientific Name: Pelecanus occidentalis
Brown pelicans are known for their dramatic plunge-diving fishing technique. Pelicans can be found along the coast often seen by beach-goers, where they search for schools of fish.
Pelicans spot their prey while flying over the water, then fold their wings and dive headfirst into the water. Once in the water their throat pouch stretches and expands to fill with water and fish. These specialized throat pouches can accommodate nearly 2.5 gallons of water along with the fish, which they can then drain.
10. American Dipper
Scientific Name: Cinclus mexicanus
American Dippers are the only aquatic songbird in North America. Their chosen prey is mainly aquatic insects and insect larvae but they also eat fish eggs and very small fish like minnows or newly hatched fry. They will fully submerge themselves in the water to find their food between rocks and among stream bed gravel. They don’t have webbed feet and don’t really swim, more like walking underwater. It’s a marvel to spot an American Dipper flitting in and out of the water to grab a snack.
Spot them in the mountain regions with rivers and streams throughout western North America. Their shape is easy to recognize, with their rounded body and very short tail. Spot them on top of rocks and logs in fast moving streams and rivers, bobbing their body up and down.
11. Black skimmerScientific Name: Rynchops niger
Black skimmers are instantly recognizable by their striking black and white plumage and their unique beak structure, where the lower mandible is longer than the upper one. These birds fly low over the water, skimming their lower bill along the surface to catch fish. Many species of fish are included in their diet, with a preference for those under 5 inches long. Smelt, anchovy, silversides, snapper, mackerel and flounder are just a few fish they are known to consume.
Their sensitive lower mandible cuts through the water like a knife and can detect the presence of fish. When they sense one they snap their bills shut, capturing the prey. You can watch these birds in action along both coasts, although they are more populous along the Gulf and southeastern Atlantic coasts.
12. Common Loon
Scientific Name: Gavia immer
There are many loon species and they are all fish eaters. A common sight in the lakes of the northern U.S. is the common loon. Loons are fast and powerful swimmers due to their body shape. Their sleek and streamlined beak and body are propelled forward by legs located at the back of their body. While this makes them amazing swimmers able to chase after fish underwater, it means they can’t walk much on land. They only come ashore to breed and hatch their eggs.