Wild Profile: Meet the osprey

An osprey catching a fish in the water By Wang LiQiang/Shutterstock

The beginning of September may be your last glimpse of cottage country’s osprey populations. By later in the month, they’re already headed to their southern digs, anywhere from Florida to Argentina. Even though their numbers once dwindled because of DDT—it thinned eggshells, and caused nesting failure, as with bald eagles—osprey are now one of the most widespread birds of prey in the world. They live everywhere except Antarctica.

The osprey is similar to the bald eagle for another reason: both species are the only raptors that catch fish. Ospreys do this by hovering as low as 10 metres above lakes, hanging their heads, watching for prey. When they spot a tasty meal, they tuck in their wings and drop down, snatching up the catch. Their talons are built to hold slippery fish; they have a reversible toe.

You can often even spot osprey and eagles together. Since bald eagles are prone to scavenging, they’ll attack an osprey carrying a fish, force it to drop the food, and then grab it for themselves. Pfft. What a jerk move. Although osprey can be mistaken for eagles—similar size, and a white head—look at the osprey’s wings. These raptors have bent, almost crooked-looking appendages, as if they have elbows.

Their weird wings make the osprey a strong flier. Other hawks glide, riding on warm, rising thermals of air, and only flapping their wings when necessary. Since osprey have such long, large wings—relative to body size—they can flap in strong strokes without using too much energy. This allows them to cross safely over large bodies of water as they head south in the fall. Fun fact? Some osprey carry a fish in their mouth during the migration journey—they eat it when they take a rest. Oh, you’ve packed a lunch! Smart.

Featured Video