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All About Ospreys

General description: An osprey is a large bird with a length of 22-25 inches, a wingspan of 4.5-6 feet, and a weight of approximately four pounds. The osprey has a dark brown back and a white belly, as well as a white head, which features a dark stripe running from its yellow eyes to the back of its head. Female ospreys are slightly larger than males and may sport a dark speckled necklace. Ospreys are seen in the Chesapeake Bay area from spring through fall, but are rare in the winter. North American ospreys winter in Florida, the Caribbean, on the Gulf Coast, and in South America.

Eating behavior: The osprey dines almost exclusively on live fish, often catching its meals by hovering over the water at an altitude of 50 to 200 feet, then diving feet-first into the water to catch its prey. The osprey's feet are uniquely adapted to "air fishing." Each osprey foot has a reversible front toe, as well as barbs, called spicules, which help it hold onto a slippery fish in flight. Normally, an osprey will aerodynamically position a fish head-first in its talons before it returns to the nest.

Nesting behavior: Like bald eagles, ospreys often reuse old nests, adding new material to them each season. Ospreys prefer nests near water, especially in large trees, but will also nest on artificial platforms. The female osprey usually lays three eggs, which will hatch in about 4 to 5 weeks. After about 10 weeks, the young will have all their flight feathers. The female will stay on the nest the majority of the time, with the male giving her an occasional break when she leaves to hunt for food.

Threats: Like many birds of prey, the osprey suffered during the 60s and 70s due to the rampant use of DDT and other dangerous pesticides. Research done at Maryland's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center laid the foundation for Rachel Carson's classic "Silent Spring," which alerted citizens, scientists, and politicians to the fact that DDT was working its way up the food chain and thinning the eggs of birds of prey. Fortunately, DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972, and thanks to the hard work of many dedicated people, including Dennis Puleston, birds of prey are beginning to rebound.

Other interesting osprey facts from Alan Poole's "Ospreys: A Natural and Unnatural History" (Cambridge University Press, 1989):

  • ospreys generally pair for life, but if mating is unsuccessful, will sometimes "divorce"
  • a female osprey will choose her mating partner based on the quality and location of the male's nest
  • osprey nests have been known to contain hula hoops, rag dolls, and toy boats
  • osprey parents will hold back food in order to encourage fledglings to leave the nest
  • osprey fledglings will sometimes move to nearby nests where they are fed by other parents
(Source: Blackwater Refuge Web site)
Copyright © 2002 DPOF Questions or comments? Email Rick Mohlmann