Article and photograph by D.W. Cloud
The osprey is a magnificent fish-eating raptor that is found on every continent except Antarctica. Also called the “fish hawk,” its upper parts are deep brown and its underside is white or white mixed with brown. It’s head is white with dark stripes on the side and black eye patches around its bright yellow eyes. It has a sharply hooked black bill.
A full grown bird is about 24 inches in length with a six-foot wing span and weighs between two to four pounds.
With its amazing eyes, this bird of prey can see a fish swimming underwater from up to 130 feet high. Like the bald eagle, the osprey’s eyes face forward, giving it binocular vision and great depth perception as it searches for prey. Its sharp eyes correct for the refraction caused by the bending of the light in the water.
When it sights a target, it hovers, folds its wings and dives feet first with its talons ready to grab the prey, sighting straight along its talons. Its outer toes are reversible, allowing it to grasp its prey with two talons in front and two behind or three talons in front and one behind. It’s talons have a rubber-like texture, and its feet have backwards-facing scales which act as barbs to help grip the slippery fish. The osprey’s nostrils are closable to keep out water during dives, and it has a membrane that covers the eye and acts as a contact lens when it is under water.
When flying with its catch, it carries the fish head-forward to reduce wind resistance. Typically it captures fish weighing 5-11 ounces, but the catch can weigh up to 2.5 pounds..
After feeding, the osprey sometimes flies low, dragging its feet in the water, apparently to wash them.
The birds usually mate for life, building a large nest that is renovated each season. The male brings the nest-building materials for the female to do the actual construction, and the male brings food to the nest while the female incubates the eggs. A pair of nesting birds and their chicks will eat six pounds of fish per day.
Most ospreys migrate for the winter, with European ospreys wintering in Africa and American and Canadian ospreys wintering in Florida, California, and South America. They average 160 miles per day during migration.