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An osprey standing on its nest

Least Concern (IUCN 3.1)[1]
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Accipitriformes
Family: Pandionidae
Genus: Pandion
P. haliaetus
Binomial name
Pandion haliaetus
Global range of Pandion haliaetus

Falco haliaetus Linnaeus, 1758

The osprey (

, reaching more than 60 cm (24 in) in length and 180 cm (71 in) across the wings. It is brown on the upperparts and predominantly greyish on the head and underparts.

The osprey tolerates a wide variety of habitats, nesting in any location near a body of water providing an adequate food supply. It is found on all continents except Antarctica, although in South America it occurs only as a non-breeding migrant.

As its other common names suggest, the osprey's diet consists almost exclusively of fish. It possesses specialised physical characteristics and unique behaviour in hunting its

prey. Its unique characteristics classify it in its own taxonomic genus, Pandion, and family
, Pandionidae.


The osprey was described by

living member of the family Pandionidae, and the family listed in its traditional place as part of the order Accipitriformes

Other schemes place it alongside the hawks and eagles in the family

paraphyletic classification.[6]

American subspecies
Australasian subspecies is the most distinctive
Californian bird with scraps of fish on its beak

The osprey is unusual in that it is a sole living species that occurs nearly worldwide. Even the few subspecies are not unequivocally separable. There are four generally recognised subspecies, although differences are small, and ITIS lists only the first three.[4]

Fossil record

To date there have been two

extinct species named from the fossil record.[11] Pandion homalopteron was named by Stuart L. Warter in 1976 from fossils of Middle Miocene, Barstovian age, found in marine deposits in the southern part of California. The second named species Pandion lovensis, was described in 1985 by Jonathan J. Becker from fossils found in Florida and dating to the latest Clarendonian and possibly representing a separate lineage from that of P. homalopteron and P. haliaetus. A number of claw fossils have been recovered from Pliocene and Pleistocene sediments in Florida and South Carolina

The oldest recognized family Pandionidae fossils have been recovered from the Oligocene age

Early Oligocene deposits in the Mainz basin, Germany, and was described in 2006 by Gerald Mayr.[13]


The genus name

Latin: haliaeetus)[14] comes from Greek ἁλιάετος haliáetos "sea-eagle" (also ἁλιαίετος haliaietos) from the combining form ἁλι- hali- of ἅλς hals "sea" and ἀετός aetos, "eagle".[15][16]

The origins of osprey are obscure;[17] the word itself was first recorded around 1460, derived via the Anglo-French ospriet and the Medieval Latin avis prede "bird of prey," from the Latin avis praedae though the Oxford English Dictionary notes a connection with the Latin ossifraga or "bone breaker" of Pliny the Elder.[18][19] However, this term referred to the bearded vulture.[20]


The osprey differs in several respects from other

diurnal birds of prey. Its toes are of equal length, its tarsi are reticulate, and its talons are rounded, rather than grooved. The osprey and owls are the only raptors whose outer toe is reversible, allowing them to grasp their prey with two toes in front and two behind. This is particularly helpful when they grab slippery fish.[21]
The osprey is 0.9–2.1 kg (2.0–4.6 lb) in weight and 50–66 cm (20–26 in) in length with a 127–180 cm (50–71 in) wingspan. It is, thus, of similar size to the largest members of the
Falco genera. The subspecies are fairly close in size, with the nominate subspecies averaging 1.53 kg (3.4 lb), P. h. carolinensis averaging 1.7 kg (3.7 lb) and P. h. cristatus averaging 1.25 kg (2.8 lb). The wing chord measures 38 to 52 cm (15 to 20 in), the tail measures 16.5 to 24 cm (6.5 to 9.4 in) and the tarsus is 5.2–6.6 cm (2.0–2.6 in).[22][23]

The upperparts are a deep, glossy brown, while the breast is white, sometimes streaked with brown, and the underparts are pure white. The head is white with a dark mask across the eyes, reaching to the sides of the neck.

cere, and the feet are white with black talons.[21] On the underside of the wings the wrists are black, which serves as a field mark.[25] A short tail and long, narrow wings with four long, finger-like feathers, and a shorter fifth, give it a very distinctive appearance.[26]

In flight, Northern Territory, Australia

The sexes appear fairly similar, but the adult male can be distinguished from the female by its slimmer body and narrower wings. The breast band of the male is also weaker than that of the female or is non-existent, and the underwing coverts of the male are more uniformly pale. It is straightforward to determine the sex in a breeding pair, but harder with individual birds.[26]

The juvenile osprey may be identified by buff fringes to the plumage of the upperparts, a buff tone to the underparts, and streaked feathers on the head. During spring, barring on the underwings and flight feathers is a better indicator of a young bird, due to wear on the upperparts.[24]

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![27]

Osprey call

Distribution and habitat

The osprey is the second most widely distributed raptor species, after the

Victoria and Tasmania.[31]

There is a 1,000 km (620 mi) gap, corresponding with the coast of the

Indochina and southern China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.[35]

Behaviour and ecology


Osprey with American Gizzard Shad.

The osprey is piscivorous, with fish making up 99% of its diet.[36] It typically takes live fish weighing 150–300 g (5.3–10.6 oz) and about 25–35 cm (9.8–13.8 in) in length, but virtually any type of fish from 50 g (1.8 oz) to 2 kg (4.4 lb) can be taken.[22] Even larger 2.8 kg (6.2 lb) northern pike (Esox lucius) has been taken in Russia.[37] The species rarely scavenges dead or dying fish.[38]

Osprey feeding on a recently caught fish in Kartung, the Gambia. Characteristically its tongue often pokes out whilst swallowing food.

Ospreys have a vision that is well adapted to detecting underwater objects from the air. Prey is first sighted when the osprey is 10–40 m (33–131 ft) above the water, after which the bird hovers momentarily and then plunges feet first into the water.[39] They catch fish by diving into a body of water, oftentimes completely submerging their entire bodies. As an osprey dives it adjusts the angle of its flight to account for the distortion of the fish's image caused by refraction. Ospreys will typically eat on a nearby perch but have also been known to carry fish for longer distances.[40]

Occasionally, the osprey may prey on rodents, rabbits, hares, other mammals, snakes, turtles, frogs, birds, salamanders, conchs, and crustaceans.[38][41][42] Reports of ospreys feeding on carrion are rare. They have been observed eating dead white-tailed deer and Virginia opossums.[43]


The osprey has several adaptations that suit its piscivorous lifestyle:

  • reversible outer toes[44]
  • sharp spicules on the underside of the toes[44]
  • closable nostrils to keep out water during dives
  • backward-facing scales on the talons which act as barbs to help hold its catch
  • dense plumage which is oily and prevents its feathers from getting waterlogged.[45]


Preparing to mate on the nest
Osprey standing next to its nest showing their relative sizes
Osprey chick (P h. carolinensis) in nest

The osprey breeds near freshwater lakes and rivers, and sometimes on coastal brackish waters. Rocky outcrops just offshore are used in

fire hazards and have caused power outages.[47]

Generally, ospreys reach sexual maturity and begin breeding around the age of three to four, though in some regions with high osprey densities, such as Chesapeake Bay in the United States, they may not start breeding until five to seven years old, and there may be a shortage of suitable tall structures. If there are no nesting sites available, young ospreys may be forced to delay breeding. To ease this problem, posts are sometimes erected to provide more sites suitable for nest building.[48] In some regions ospreys prefer transmission towers as nesting sites, e.g. in eastern Germany.[49]

Egg, collection of the Museum Wiesbaden

The nesting platform design developed by one organization,

State of New Jersey, U.S. The nesting platform plans and materials list, available online, have been utilized by people from a number of different geographical regions.[50] There is a global site for mapping osprey nest locations and logging observations on reproductive success.[51]

Ospreys usually mate for life. Rarely, polyandry has been recorded.[52] The breeding season varies according to latitude: spring (September–October) in southern Australia, April to July in northern Australia, and winter (June–August) in southern Queensland.[46] In spring, the pair begins a five-month period of partnership to raise their young. The female lays two to four eggs within a month and relies on the size of the nest to conserve heat. The eggs are whitish with bold splotches of reddish-brown and are about 6.2 cm × 4.5 cm (2.4 in × 1.8 in) and weigh about 65 g (2.3 oz).[46] The eggs are incubated for about 35–43 days to hatching.[53]

The newly hatched chicks weigh only 50–60 g (1.8–2.1 oz), but fledge in 8–10 weeks. A study on Kangaroo Island, South Australia, had an average time between hatching and fledging of 69 days. The same study found an average of 0.66 young fledged per year per occupied territory, and 0.92 young fledged per year per active nest. Some 22% of surviving young either remained on the island or returned at maturity to join the breeding population.[52] When food is scarce, the first chicks to hatch are most likely to survive. The typical lifespan is 7–10 years, though rarely individuals can grow to as old as 20–25 years.

The oldest European wild osprey on record lived to be over thirty years of age. In North America,

trematodes (Scaphanocephalus expansus and Neodiplostomum spp.) have been recorded in wild ospreys.[61]


European breeders winter in Africa.[62] American and Canadian breeders winter in South America, although some stay in the southernmost U.S. states such as Florida and California.[63] Some ospreys from Florida migrate to South America.[64] Australasian ospreys tend not to migrate.

Studies of Swedish ospreys showed that females tend to migrate to Africa earlier than males. More stopovers are made during their autumn migration. The variation of timing and duration in autumn was more variable than in spring. Although migrating predominantly during the day, they sometimes fly in the dark hours, particularly in crossings over water and cover on average 260–280 km (160–170 mi) per day with a maximum of 431 km (268 mi) per day.[65] European birds may also winter in South Asia, as indicated by an osprey tagged in Norway being monitored in western India.[66] In the Mediterranean, ospreys show partial migratory behaviour with some individuals remaining resident, whilst others undertake relatively short migration trips.[67]


Swedish ospreys have a significantly higher mortality rate during migration seasons than during stationary periods, with more than half of the total annual mortality occurring during migration.

Sahara desert. Mortality can also occur through mishaps with human utilities, such as nesting near overhead electric cables or collisions with aircraft.[69]


Adults on a man-made nest in New Jersey, US

The osprey has a large range, covering 9,670,000 km2 (3,730,000 sq mi) in just Africa and the Americas, and has a large global population estimated at 460,000 individuals. Although global population trends have not been quantified, the species is not believed to approach the thresholds for the population decline criterion of the IUCN Red List (i.e., declining more than 30% in ten years or three generations), and for these reasons, the species is evaluated as Least Concern.[70] There is evidence for regional decline in South Australia where former territories at locations in the Spencer Gulf and along the lower Murray River have been vacant for decades.[32]

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the main threats to osprey populations were egg collectors and hunting of the adults along with other birds of prey,[54][71] but osprey populations declined drastically in many areas in the 1950s and 1960s; this appeared to be in part due to the toxic effects of insecticides such as DDT on reproduction.[72] The pesticide interfered with the bird's calcium metabolism which resulted in thin-shelled, easily broken or infertile eggs.[29] Possibly because of the banning of DDT in many countries in the early 1970s, together with reduced persecution, the osprey, as well as other affected bird of prey species, have made significant recoveries.[36] In South Australia, nesting sites on the Eyre Peninsula and Kangaroo Island are vulnerable to unmanaged coastal recreation and encroaching urban development.[32]

Cultural depictions


I think he'll be to Rome
As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature.


In Buddhism, the osprey is sometimes represented as the "King of Birds", especially in 'The Jātaka: Or, Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births' , no. 486.


The osprey pictured in the coat of arms of Sääksmäki
Cap badge of the Selous Scouts was a stylized osprey
  • In heraldry, the osprey is typically depicted as a white eagle,[74] often maintaining a fish in its talons or beak, and termed a "sea-eagle". It is historically regarded as a symbol of vision and abundance; more recently it has become a symbol of positive responses to nature,[71] and has been featured on more than 50 international postage stamps.[77]
  • In 1994, the osprey was declared the provincial bird of Nova Scotia, Canada.[78]
  • It is also the official bird of Södermanland, Sweden.
  • The cap badge of Rhodesia's Selous Scouts (1973-1980) was a stylized osprey.
  • Ospreys are a common feature of
    First nations artwork in the Pacific Northwest, such as Kwakwakaʼwakw art. They are often used to depict the mythical thunderbird


The osprey is used as a brand name for various products and sports teams, such as the Ospreys and Seattle Seahawks. The official mascot of athletic teams at the University of North Carolina Wilmington is named Sammy C. Hawk. The Riverhawk is the mascot of the Northeastern State University as well as the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. Talon the osprey is the mascot of Stockton University, and Ozzie the osprey is the mascot of the University of North Florida.


So-called "osprey" plumes were an important item in the

plume trade of the late 19th century and used in hats including those used as part of the army uniform. Despite their name, these plumes were actually obtained from egrets.[79]

During the 2017 regular session of the

Oregon Legislature, there was a short-lived controversy over the western meadowlark's status as the state bird versus the osprey. The sometimes-spirited debate included state representative Rich Vial playing the meadowlark's song on his smartphone over the House microphone.[80] A compromise was reached in SCR 18,[81] which was passed on the last day of the session, designating the western meadowlark as the state songbird and the osprey as the state raptor


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