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11 Facts About Ospreys (with Photos)

Ospreys are a member of the raptor family that is widely distributed throughout all the continents, except for Antarctica. These birds are known for their huge nests, distinctive appearance, and unique behavior. In this article, we will explore some interesting facts about ospreys, including their impressive hunting skills and adaptations. So, let’s take a closer look at these amazing creatures and learn more about their lives and habits.

11 Facts About Ospreys

Ospreys are large raptors with dark brown on their wings, tail and back. Their head is white with a large brown stripe going through the eye, which is yellow. Their throat and belly are white. In flight when viewing them from below, you can see dark barring on the underside of their wings. Males and females have the same plumage. 

Now let’s dive into some interesting facts! 

1. They Have Been Known By Many Names

At one time, the osprey was classified as a hawk, but has since been placed in its own family. As a bird of prey associated with water and fish, they have been referred to as fish hawks, river hawks, and sea hawks. Fish typically make up 99% of their diet. 

2. Ospreys Dive Into Water To Catch Fish

The fish that Ospreys catch are typically between 6-13 inches long and weigh under 2 pounds. Their eyes are well adapted to find fish below the waters surface as they fly above, up to 130 feet above the water.

When their prey is spotted, they hover for a moment, then dive feet first into the water. If possible they will try and grab the fish without getting their body wet, but sometimes their whole body becomes submerged during the dive. Then they quickly come to the surface and are able to use their strong wings to take off as they carry the fish to a perch to eat.  

osprey catching fish
Osprey catching a fish | image by Caroline Legg via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

3. Osprey have special adaptations to support their fish-catching lifestyle

In order to crash into the water and be able to take off again, they need oily feathers. Osprey have dense feathers and a gland that produces a waxy oil they can spread on their feathers to make them water resistant. 

They are able to close their nostrils during a dive so water doesn’t go up their nose. Even their feet have some special adaptations. Their outer toe is reversible, they have sharp spicules on their toes, and backward-facing barb-like scales on their talons. All these help them grip and keep hold of slippery fish. 

4. Ospreys Eat More Than Just Fish

While they do stick closely to their fish diet, sometimes Osprey will include other types of food. Rodents, rabbits, turtles, snakes, birds, conchs, crustaceans and frogs may make their extended list. Very rarely they have been observed eating deer and opossum carrion (already dead animals).

5. Some Ospreys Migrate, while others don’t

There are some areas where Osprey remain all year, such as parts of California, Floria, along the Gulf coast and southeast coast of the U.S. and the Caribbean. Otherwise, large populations spend winters in southern California, Texas, Mexico and South America, then migrate north to Alaska, Canada and large areas of the northwestern and northeastern U.S.

Osprey perched
Osprey | image by Glacier National Park via Flickr

6. Ospreys Can Live For Several Years

The average lifespan of an osprey is between 15 to 20 years old. However, the oldest known bird of this species lived to be just a little over 25 years!

7. These Birds Can Travel Long Distances

Osprey aren’t just birds of the Americas, they are found on every continent except Antarctica. Satellite transmitters attached to a selection of birds has helped scientists see not only where Osprey travel to, but how quickly they get there. During their lifetime, the osprey can travel over 160,000 miles. 

These birds have even been found to migrate between Africa and Sweden, traveling as many as 4,200 miles over a span of 45 days. While that alone is impressive, researchers recorded one osprey that flew 2,700 miles from Massachusetts to South America in only 13 days!

8. Ospreys Need A Lot Of Space For Nesting

Ospreys need a spot high-up, with a sturdy base and open surroundings to build their nests. Snags, treetops and cliffs are common natural areas. In many places man-made platforms have been constructed for them. Sticks make up the bulk of the nest, then it is lined with bark, grass and other plant material. 

osprey nest
Osprey approaching its nest | image by Matt Poole/USFWS via Flickr

9. Osprey’s often return to the same nest for multiple years

Osprey’s often return to the same nest for multiple years, adding more material each time. Paired ospreys, however, won’t return to their nest at the same time when migrating. In most cases, the male arrives first, and he will find or secure the nesting site before the female arrives. Together, the two will build a nest nest or make any needed repairs to a previously used nest, using grass, sticks, and even cardboard to prepare their home for their new eggs.

10. Ospreys Are Not Drinkers

You probably won’t see an osprey drink water, since these birds generally don’t drink. It is assumed that the ospreys get all the water they need to stay hydrated from the fish they consume

11. They were once threatened by DDT

DDT was a popular insecticide used in the mid 20th century. Unfortunately, DDT negatively effected the birds reproductive systems and behaviors, as well as thinned their eggshells, making most eggs non-viable and not able to last long enough to hatch babies. This caused a huge population crash between 1950 and 1970.

Thankfully populations have rebounded since DDT was banned. As habitat loss (tree removal and shoreline development) in many areas continues to be an issue, man-made nesting platforms are one conversation method employed to support Osprey populations.