The Osprey

The Osprey, sometimes known as the “fish eagle” or “sea hawk”, is a diurnal fish-eating bird of prey.  It is a larger raptor, reaching more than 24 inches in length and 71 inches across the wings.


The Osprey differs in several aspects from other diurnal birds of prey.  The upper parts are a deep, glossy brown, while the breast is white and sometimes streaked with brown and the under parts are pure white.  The head is white, with a dark mask across the eyes, reaching to the sides of the neck.  The irises are golden to brown, and the transparent nictitating membrane is pale blue.  The bill is black with a blue ‘cere’ ( soft swelling containing the nostrils at the base of the upper beak —- as in parrot) and the feet are white with black talons.  Its toes are of equal length, its ‘tarsi’ (sing. tarsus) are reticulate (made or arranged like a net) and its talons are rounded rather than grooved.  The Osprey and the owl are the only raptors whose outer toe is reversible, allowing them to grasp their prey with 2 toes in front and 2 behind.  This is particularly helpful when they grab slippery fish.


A short tail and long narrow wings with 4 long, finger-like feathers, and a shorter 5th, give it a very distinctive appearance.  In “flight”, the Osprey has arched wings and drooping hands giving it a gull-like appearance.  The call is a series of sharp whistles, described as ‘cheep, cheep’ or ‘yewk, yewk’.  If disturbed by activity near the nest, the call is a frenzied ‘cheereek’.
The Osprey is unusual in that it is a single living species that occurs nearly world-wide.  The Osprey is the 2nd most widely distributed raptor species, after the Peregrine Falcon.  It is found in temperate and tropical regions of all continents, except Antarctica.  In North America it breeds from Alaska and Newfoundland south to the Gulf Coast and Florida, wintering further south from the southern US through to Argentina.  In summer, it is found throughout Europe north into Ireland, Scandinavia, Finland, Scotland, England and Wales and winters in North Africa.


Fish make up 99% of the Osprey’s diet. They have vision that is well-adapted to detecting underwater objects from the air.  Prey is first sighted when the Osprey is 33-131 feet above the water, after which the bird hovers, momentarily, then plunges ospreyChick_1421465cfeet first into the water (remember the arrangement of its toes).  The Osprey is the Provincial Bird of both Nova Scotia, Canada (1994) and Sodermanland, Sweden.
Cultural Depictions :  Nisos, a King of Megara, in Greek Mythology, became an Osprey, to attack his daughter after she fell in love with Minos, King of Crete.  The Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, reported that parent Ospreys made their young fly up to the sun as a test, and dispatched any that failed.
Another odd legend, regarding the Osprey, is that it had one webbed foot and one taloned foot.  There was a medieval belief, that fish were so mesmerised by the Osprey that they turned belly-up in surrender.  In Buddhism, the Osprey is sometimes represented as the King of Birds, especially in The Jataka or Stories of the Buddha’s former births.

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