Ospreys have a worldwide distribution, wintering or breeding on every continent except Antarctica. Ospreys are not known to breed in South America or Indo-Malasia, but are sometimes found there in the winter. Ospreys are winter breeders in Egypt and some Red Sea islands. Regions where ospreys are particularly abundant include Scandinavia and the Chesapeake Bay region of the United States. (Bruun and Baha el Din, 1999; Poole, 1989; Poole, 1994; Poole, et al., 2002; Porter and Cottridge, 2001; Steidl, 1991)
There are four subspecies of ospreys, which are separated by geographic region. Pandion haliaetus carolinensis breeds in North America and the Caribbean, and winters in South America. P. h. haliaetus breeds in the Palearctic region (Europe, north Africa and in Asia, north of the Himalayas) and winters in south Africa, India and the East Indies. P. h. ridgwayi is a non-migratory subspecies. It resides in the Caribbean, with a range that extends from the Bahamas and Cuba to southeast Mexico and Belize. The final subspecies, P. h. leucocephalus is also a non-migratory subspecies. Its range includes Australia and the southwest Pacific.
Ospreys have a wide distribution because they are able to live almost anywhere where there are safe nest sites and shallow water with abundant fish. Nests are generally found within 3 to 5 km of a water body such as a salt marsh, mangrove (Rhizophora) swamp, cypress (Taxodium) swamp, lake, bog, reservoir or river. The frequency with which each of these habitat types is used varies by geographic region. (Poole, 1989; Poole, 1994)
Ospreys choose structures that can support a bulky nest, and that are safe from ground-based predators. Nest sites can be safe from predators either by being difficult for a predator to climb (e.g. on a cliff) or by being over water or on a small island. Over-water nest sites that are often used by ospreys include buoys and channel markers, dead trees and artificial nest platforms. Ospreys have also been known to nest on various man-made structures, such as power poles, duck blinds, communication towers, buildings and even billboards. In many cases, nests that are built on artificial structures such as nest platforms and power poles are more stable and fledge more chicks per breeding season than nests on naturally-occuring structures. (Ewins, 1996; Henny and Kaiser, 1996; Poole, 1989; Poole, 1994)
Ospreys are large birds of prey (55 to 58 cm long), with a wingspan ranging from 145 to 170 cm. Their long wings have a characteristic bend at the carpal ("wrist") joints. They are bright white underneath, with dark brown patches at the carpal joints and a mottled dark brown necklace. Other identifying markings include a dark stripe through each eye, and a dark brown back. The feet of this species are pale blue-gray, and the beak is black. Juvenile ospreys resemble adults, but have a somewhat speckled appearance due to buff-colored tips on their dark brown upper-wing and back coverts and a less well-defined necklace. Juveniles also have an orange-red iris, rather than the yellow iris that is typical of adults. Juvenile plumage is replaced by adult plumage by 18 months of age. (Poole, 1989; Poole, 1994; Snyder and Snyder, 1991)
On average, while not necessarily longer, female ospreys are 20% heavier than males and have a wingspan that is 5 to 10% greater. In North America, for example, male ospreys range in mass from 1200 to 1600 g, whereas females range from 1600 to 2000 g. Female ospreys also often have darker plumage and a more defined necklace than their male counterparts. (Poole, 1994)
Ospreys display morphological variation by region. Tropical and subtropical individuals tend to be smaller than individuals that breed at higher latitudes. The four subspecies of ospreys show some variation in size and color. Pandion haliaetis haliaetus and P.h. carolinensis are the largest and darkest subspecies. P.h.ridgwayi is approximately the same size as carolinensis, but is paler on the head and breast. P.h. cristatus is the smallest subspecies, with a dark necklace and pale crown. (Poole, 1994)
Ospreys have several morphological adaptations to their unique fish-eating lifestyle. These adaptations include relatively long legs for a raptor, spiny footpads called spicules, long, sharp, curved claws, and a reversible outer toe to aid in gripping slippery fish. In addition, ospreys have dense oily plumage and efficient nasal valves that prevent water from entering the nostrils when the bird dives to catch a fish. (Poole, 1994; Snyder and Snyder, 1991)
Some ospreys migrate seasonally, but not all. Non-migratory populations breed and winter in the same location, though they may wander several hours from their nest during the non-breeding season. These populations begin breeding between December and March. Migratory populations generally breed where winters are cold enough to drive fish into deep water where they are inaccessible. These populations begin breeding in April or May. (Poole, 1989)
Courtship in ospreys centers on food and nest sites. In migratory osprey populations, males and females arrive at the nest site separately, the male often arriving several days earlier than the female. Male ospreys sometimes perform a conspicuous aerial display near the nest site. This display usually occurs during early courtship, and may serve to attract potential mates or to threaten an intruder. Both sexes collect materials for the nest, but the female does most of the arranging of materials at the nest. Osprey nests are typically constructed of sticks, and lined with softer materials such as seaweed, kelp, grasses or cardboard. A wide variety of flotsam and jetsam may also be incorporated into osprey nests, including fishing line, plastic bags and nearly anything else that an osprey might find and can lift. Osprey pairs use the same nest year after year, but must spend some time each year repairing it and adding materials before eggs can be laid. (Poole, 1989; Poole, 1994)
Once a pair has established a nest, the male begins to deliver food to the female. This feeding continues until the young fledge or the nest fails. Generally, females that receive more food are more receptive to mating attempts by the male, and are less likely to copulate with other males. Females beg for food from their mates, and occasionally from neighboring males if they are not well fed by their mate. Males may protect their paternity by feeding their mate. They may also protect their paternity by guarding their mate from other males and copulating frequently when she is most fertile (several days before egg laying). (Poole, 1989; Poole, 1994)
Ospreys are generally monogamous. However, polygyny can occur in rare instances where nest sites are close enough together that a male can defend two nests. When this occurs, the first nest usually experiences higher reproductive success than the second because the male devotes more resources to that nest. (Poole, 1994)
The breeding season of ospreys differs between populations. Non-migratory populations breed in the winter and spring, laying eggs between December and March. The breeding season of migratory populations occurs in the spring and summer, with egg laying in April and May. Two to four eggs are laid over a period of several days, each 1 to 2 days apart. Both the male and female incubate the eggs, which hatch after approximately 40 days. Because incubation starts when the first egg is laid, the eggs hatch asynchronously in the order in which they were laid. Chicks that hatch first are larger and have a competitive advantage over those that are hatch later. If food becomes scarce, the smaller chicks are less successful in competing for food, and often die. This decrease in the number of chicks in the nest makes food more available to the surviving chicks, and increases their likelihood of survival. This process, common in raptors, is called brood reduction. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Poole, 1989; Poole, 1994; Snyder and Snyder, 1991)
When osprey chicks hatch, they are covered in white down with brown streaks on the face, back, and wings. This is replaced by charcoal-colored down after approximately 10 days. Feathers begin to replace the down at approximately two weeks. By one month after hatching, chicks have reached 70 to 80% of the adult size. Osprey chicks fledge between 48 and 76 days old. Generally, chicks in migratory populations fledge sooner than those in non-migratory populations. After fledging, young ospreys begin to hunt on their own. However, they often continue to return to the nest to receive food from their parents for two to eight weeks after fledging. Because ospreys migrate individually, juvenile ospreys must be fully independent of their parents by the time the southward migration begins. (Poole, 1989; Poole, 1994)
Ospreys are sexually mature at approximately 3 years old, but may not breed until age 5 in areas where nest sites are scarce. Migratory ospreys in both Europe and the U.S. exhibit a pattern of behavior that is unusual in raptors. Rather than returning to the breeding grounds in their first summer, yearling ospreys almost always remain on the wintering grounds throughout the year. They then return to the breeding grounds the following summer when they are more likely to be able to breed successfully. This strategy allows young ospreys that are too physically immature to breed to avoid an unnecessary migration. (Poole, 1989; Poole, 1994)
Both male and female ospreys care for their young. Ospreys provide parental care by protecting their young from from predators and weather, and by feeding them. During incubation and the nestling stage, the male osprey provides food to the female and the chicks. This entails delivering 60 to 100 g of fish to the nest per daylight hour (3 to 10 fish per day) during the nestling and fledgling stages. When a fish is delivered to the nest, one of the adults rips pieces of flesh from the fish and feeds them to the chicks. Parents continue to feed the young until two to eight weeks after they fledge. (Poole, 1989; Poole, 1994)
During the first weeks after hatching, osprey chicks are not able to control their body temperature well. The female parent broods the chicks almost constantly for the first two weeks. She continues to brood them intermittently during very hot or cool weather until they are approximately four weeks old. Both parents expend considerable effort protecting the nest from intruders, including other ospreys and potential predators. (Poole, 1989; Poole, 1994; Poole, et al., 2002)
Ospreys are a relatively long-lived bird species. The oldest known osprey in North America was a 25-year old male. The oldest known female was 23 years old. However, very few individuals live to this age. Chance of survival from one year to the next varies between populations, but is estimated to be approximately 60% for young ospreys (less than 2 years old) and 80 to 90% for adult ospreys. (Poole, et al., 2002)
Ospreys can be migratory or sedentary (non-migratory). Non-migratory populations breed and winter in the same location. Migratory osprey populations generally breed north of the non-migratory populations and winter south of them, with very little overlap between the two groups. The geographic division between migratory and non-migratory populations is roughly 30 degrees N latitude in North America and 38 to 40 degrees N latitude in Europe. (Fernandez and Fernandez, 1977; Poole, 1989; Poole, 1994)
Ospreys nest at a range of densities, from very solitary (many kilometers from the nearest neighboring nest) to loose colonies, with nests less than 100 m apart. Colonies may form because the presence of established nests is a signal of suitable habitat to arriving individuals, or because good nest sites are often clustered together, such as on an island or along a power line. Grouping of nests is uncommon in raptor species because most raptors defend a feeding territory around their nest. Ospreys defend their nest or nest site, but do not defend a territory around the nest. It is not profitable for an osprey pair to defend a territory around the nest because their prey are patchily distributed, mobile, and often located several kilometers away from the nest. Indeed, ospreys are often observed hunting in groups, and may be able to hunt more efficiently by doing so. (Poole, 1989; Poole, 1994; Poole, et al., 2002)
Ospreys do vigorously defend their actual nests or nest sites from intruders. This is most likely because nests are used by the same pair for many years, and represent a significant investment of time and energy by that pair. (Poole, 1989)
Breeding ospreys are known to travel as far as 14 km from their nest during hunting forays. Non-breeding individuals are known to travel as far as 10 km between their daytime feeding grounds and their roosts. (Poole, et al., 2002)
Ospreys use several different vocalizations to communicate with one another. Up to five different calls have been recognized by researchers. These calls are nearly always associated with a visual display, such as a characteristic flight or posture. Vocalizations are used for begging, alarm, courtship, and nest defense. One notable display is the “sky-dance,” which is an elaborate aerial display performed by males during courtship and early incubation. During this display, a male carrying a fish or nest material gives a screaming call while simultaneously performing short undulating flights separated by periods of hovering. Alarm calls are often given when a potential predator or disturbance such as a boat or human approaches the nest. These calls are usually accompanied by erect posturing and diving flight. (Poole, 1989; Poole, 1994; Poole, et al., 2002)
Ospreys are unusual among raptors for being piscivores. Their diet consists almost exclusively of fish (≥99% of prey items). They are generally opportunistic, and will eat whatever fish species are accessible to them – either in shallow waters, or near the surface of deeper waters. Studies in North America have documented more than 80 different prey species of ospreys. However, 2 or 3 common species may dominate the diet of local ospreys in a given area. (Poole, 1989; Poole, et al., 2002)
Ospreys hunt for fish on the wing (less often from a perch), flapping and gliding 10 to 40 meters above the water. When an osprey spots a fish, it hovers briefly, then dives toward the surface of the water. Just before hitting the water, the osprey swings its legs forward and bends its wings back, plunging feet-first into the water. The osprey uses strong, almost horizontal wing beats to lift itself and its prey from the water. Once airborne, the osprey rearranges the fish in its feet, carrying it with one foot in front of the other so that the fish is facing forward. This position presumably makes the fish more aerodynamic, and easier to carry. The osprey then takes the fish to a perch, often near the nest, to eat. Osprey generally eat fish beginning with the head and working toward the tail. A male who is also providing food for a mate and offspring during the breeding season will typically consume at least part of the fish before delivering the remainder to the female. Ospreys do not cache fish. If a fish is larger than an osprey (and his mate and offspring if breeding) can consume, the fish is discarded, carried around with the osprey, or left in the nest. Ospreys do not generally need to drink water. Fish flesh supplies sufficient amounts of water to meet their requirements. (Poole, 1989; Poole, 1994; Poole, et al., 2002)
Ospreys catch fish on 24 to 74% of their dives. This success rate is affected by individual ability, weather and tide. Some studies have shown that ospreys are most successful hunting at midtide and when the weather is calm. (Poole, et al., 2002)
Though the vast majority of osprey prey items are live fish, ospreys have been observed to eat other foods on occasion. These include birds, snakes, voles, squirrels, muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus), salamanders, conchs, and even a small alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). Reports of ospreys feeding on carrion are rare. However, they have been observed eating dead white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and opossum (Didelphis virginiana). (Poole, et al., 2002)
Ospreys are vulnerable to predation from aerial predators, such as owls and eagles . In North America, Bald eagles and great horned owls are known predators of osprey nestlings and (occasionally) adults. The speckled appearance of osprey chicks camouflages them in the nest and may be an adaptation to minimize predation by diurnal avian predators like the bald eagle. (Poole, 1989; Poole, et al., 2002)
Raccoons, snakes and other climbing animals are suspected predators of osprey eggs and nestlings. Selection by such terrestrial predators may explain why the majority of osprey nests in many area, for example in the Chesapeake Bay region of the U.S., are built over water. Crocodilians may prey on wintering ospreys. Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus) sometimes kill ospreys bathing and roosting near water in Africa. (Poole, 1989; Poole, et al., 2002)
While ospreys provide food for some species (see Predation), it is unlikely that they represent a significant portion of the diet of any species. Ospreys do prey on fish, and are likely have some effect on local fish populations. Like most predators, ospreys are host to many different species of parasites, including feather mites. They are not parasitic or mutualistic with any other species. (Poole, et al., 2002)
Ospreys nests are used by many species of birds other than ospreys. Smaller cavity-nesting species, such as common grackles, tree swallows, barn swallows, European starlings and house sparrows build nests within osprey nests. Other larger species will usurp osprey nests for their own use in the spring before the resident ospreys return. In North America, these species include great blue herons, Canada geese, bald eagles, Red-tailed hawks, Great horned owls, herring gulls and common ravens. (Poole, et al., 2002)
Ospreys in some areas, particularly boreal and other northern forested regions, may have historically been dependant on beavers for creation of habitat. Beavers create osprey habitat by building dams, which create shallow ponds for fishing and dead trees appropriate for building nests. (Poole, et al., 2002)
Ospreys may be a valuable indicator species for monitoring the long-term health of large rivers, bays and estuaries. Ospreys are well-suited to this role because of their piscivorous lifestyle and their known sensitivity to many contaminants. They are also relatively easily studied because they have conspicuous nests and are tolerant of short-term disturbance such as nest observations by researchers. The presence of ospreys may also benefit local economies by boosting ecotourism. (Poole, 1989; Poole, et al., 2002)
There are no known negative impacts of ospreys on humans. In the past, some fishermen have believed that ospreys competed with them for fish. However, studies have demonstrated that ospreys take a very small portion of all fish harvested and are not serious competition for commercial and recreational fishing. (Poole, 1989)
Ospreys are not listed under the Endangered Species Act. However, this species is listed as threatened, endangered or a species of special concern in several U.S. states, including Michigan. Ospreys are also protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act and CITES Appendix II. They are not listed on the IUCN Red List.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the main threats to osprey populations were egg collectors and shootings. These declined by the mid-twentieth century, though some shootings still occur. With the introduction and widespread use of the pesticide DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), osprey populations in many areas declined sharply from the 1950’s through the 1970’s. During this period, 90% of breeding pairs disappeared from the Atlantic coast between New York City and Boston. DDT was banned in the U.S. around 1970, but continues to be used in some countries that serve as wintering grounds for ospreys. Populations of ospreys largely rebounded after the banning of DDT and are now reaching historic levels. Installation of artificial nest structures, hacking projects and new habitat created by reservoirs have allowed osprey populations to increase and expand their range. (LaPierre, 1991; Poole, 1989; Poole, et al., 2002)
Bones belonging to earlier Pandion species from the mid- to late-Miocene (approx. 13 million years ago) were found in California and Florida. These prehistoric osprey species were slightly less robust than modern ospreys, but otherwise very similar. (Poole, et al., 2002)
Kari Kirschbaum (author), Animal Diversity Web, George Hammond (editor), Animal Diversity Web.
Patricia Sharpe Watkins (earlier author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.
living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.
living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.
living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.
living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.
uses sound to communicate
young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.
having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.
areas with salty water, usually in coastal marshes and estuaries.
an animal that mainly eats meat
flesh of dead animals.
uses smells or other chemicals to communicate
the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.
used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.
having a worldwide distribution. Found on all continents (except maybe Antarctica) and in all biogeographic provinces; or in all the major oceans (Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific.
having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.
humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.
animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.
an area where a freshwater river meets the ocean and tidal influences result in fluctuations in salinity.
union of egg and spermatozoan
forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.
mainly lives in water that is not salty.
a distribution that more or less circles the Arctic, so occurring in both the Nearctic and Palearctic biogeographic regions.
Found in northern North America and northern Europe or Asia.
offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).
marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.
makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds
Having one mate at a time.
having the capacity to move from one place to another.
This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.
the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.
islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.
found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.
reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.
an animal that mainly eats fish
having more than one female as a mate at one time
rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.
Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).
mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.
breeding is confined to a particular season
remains in the same area
reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female
living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.
a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.
uses touch to communicate
that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).
Living on the ground.
the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.
uses sight to communicate
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Ewins, P. 1996. The use of artificial nest sites by an increasing population of ospreys in the Canadian Great Lakes Basin. Pp. 109-124 in D Bird, D Varland, J Negro, eds. Raptors in Human Landscapes. Sand Diego: Academic Press Limited.
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Henny, C., J. Kaiser. 1996. Osprey population increase along the Willamette River, Oregon, and the Role of Utility Structures, 1976-93. Pp. 97-108 in D Bird, D Varland, J Negro, eds. Raptors in Human Landscapes. San Diego: Academic Press Limited.
International Symposium on Bald Eagles and Ospreys, 1983. Biology and Management of Bald Eagles and Ospreys. Quebec: MacDonald Raptor Research Centre of McGill University.
LaPierre, Y. 1991. Divided over voyageurs. National Parks, 70: 36-40.
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Poole, A. 1994. Family Pandionidae (Osprey). Pp. 42-50 in J Del Hoyo, A Elliott, J Sargatal, eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 2. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions.
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Porter, R., D. Cottridge. 2001. A photographic guide to birds of Egypt and the Middle East. Cairo, Egypt: The American University in Cairo Press.
Snyder, N., H. Snyder. 1991. Birds of Prey: Natural History and Conservation of North American Raptors. Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press, Inc..
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