8 Fascinating Facts About the Amazing Osprey

Osprey flying over water with a fish caught in its claws

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The osprey is a unique raptor, standing out for its beauty and choice of prey. A piscivore found on all continents on Earth except Antartica, osprey are a single species in their own genus and family. Some of these majestic birds migrate, while those in warm climates stay in place year-round.

Ospreys possess a large, five-foot wingspan and have brown, black, and white coloration throughout their wings and bodies. These birds of prey are noted for their nests which are built on tall, open tree branches or poles near bodies of water. From superb fishing skills to long migrations, learn more about the incredible osprey.

1. Ospreys Are Raptors

Also known as the river hawk, fish hawk, or sea hawk, ospreys are large birds of prey. Ospreys comprise a single species in one family and four subspecies that have some physical variations and are divided by geographic area.

They are noted for their large size, wide wingspan, and a distinctive dark patch on their wings. Ospreys have unique black stripes that run from their beaks across their eyes and down the sides of their heads. They live near water and are unique among raptors for their fish-based diet.

2. They Excel at Fishing

osprey taking off after landing in water holding a fish
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Opportunistic fish-eaters, ospreys feed almost exclusively on live fish. Around 80 fish species make up about 99 percent of the osprey’s diet. The raptor flies 32 to 130 feet in the air and dives, typically feet first, into shallow water to capture its prey. They are successful in 24 percent to 74 percent of their dives, depending on weather conditions, tides, and ability.

The osprey’s unique talons allow it to rearrange their catch so that it faces forward as they carry it to their nest.

3. They Are Widely Distributed 

With the exception of Antartica, the osprey, the second most widely distributed raptor species after the peregrine falcon, can be found on every continent. 

In southern portions of their range, including the Caribbean and Florida, ospreys live year-round, while in northern areas, ospreys migrate in winter. The osprey's primary location requirement is proximity to fish. They nest on high structures adjacent to lakes, rivers, and wetlands.

4. They Have Been Around for Millions of Years

The osprey species is at least 11 million years old and is so well adapted to its sea-faring lifestyle that it has evolved unique characteristics that set it apart from other raptor species. Because its primary diet is fish, the osprey’s nostrils can be closed during dives, and it has an outer toe that can be angled backward to better grasp fish.

The species is so unique, it is listed in its own genus (Pandion) and family (Pandionidae).

5. Ospreys Travel Extensively

Ospreys typically live as long as 15 to 20 years, and the oldest known osprey was just over 25 years old. During that long lifetime, these migratory birds can rack up over 160,000 miles of travel. 

Researchers tracking osprey migration between Sweden and Africa found birds traveling as far as 4,200 miles over a 45 day period. Another study recorded an osprey that flew from Massachusetts to South Africa, a journey of 2,700 miles, in 13 days.

6. They Have Several Ways of Communicating

Ospreys are able to express different signals in a variety of ways. A study of osprey behavior revealed that they have eight distinctive vocalizations to express feelings, including excitement, alarm, and requests for food, and 11 physical displays to convey messages of courtship, protection, rest, and attack. 

Courting males perform an aerial display known as the “sky-dance.” During the dance, the male brings food or materials for the nest while hovering, wobbling in flight, and making a screaming sound to attract a female.

7. They Are Generally Monogamous

mated pair of ospreys at their nest

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In most instances, ospreys are monogamous and mate for life. The male osprey attracts a mate with an aerial display near a nesting location. The pair gathers materials to build the nest, typically set on a tall tree or pole near the water. After several years of adding materials, osprey nests can grow as tall as 10 feet.

Before mating, the male delivers food to his partner, and continues the feeding ritual until the young offspring are ready to fledge.

8. Ospreys Always Return Home

Ospreys that do migrate return to the same area every year. Some even return to the same nests. Breeding males and females arrive at the nest site separately, with males making their appearance first.

When the pair returns to their nest, they first spend time making repairs, adding sticks, grasses, and cardboard until the nest is ready for egg laying.