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What is an Osprey?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 30 August 2014
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An osprey is a bird of prey in the order Falconiformes. Like other birds in this order, the osprey is considered a raptor, and it hunts for its food with extremely sharp claws, excellent eyes, and powerful wings. Ospreys are rather unique raptors, with enough individual traits that they are set aside in their own genus. Only one osprey species, Pandion haliaetus, can be found on Earth today, although there are several subspecies.

The body of an osprey is adapted for hunting. The birds have streamlined, lightweight bodies with a big wingspan which can support the bird along with the weight of its prey. The underside of an osprey is creamy to white, making it hard for prey to spot from the ground, and from above an osprey is dark brown. The birds can spot prey from surprising distances, swooping in on a daring dive to pick up food before flying off again. The birds make a characteristic high chirping noise which is familiar to many people who live near bodies of water.

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Ospreys are sometimes called fish eagles or fish hawks, in a reference to their diet, which consists primarily of fish. These medium-sized raptors are very good at spotting the signs of fish in shallow marine areas, rivers, lakes, and streams. With its strong set of toes and curved talons, an osprey can scoop up a fish and hold it tightly until it reaches its home nest. Osprey have one very unique trait; their outer toes are opposable, allowing them to grip with two toes in front and two toes in back, or three toes in front and one two in back.

Osprey subspecies can be found all over the world. The birds prefer lofty nests, and they will adopt telephone poles, bridges, and other human structures if no tall trees are available. Generally, ospreys pair for life, raising a small clutch of chicks every spring. Some ospreys are migratory, traveling to abundant fishing grounds in good weather and returning to their home bases to breed. Like other birds, osprey are vulnerable to habitat destruction and pollution, but worldwide osprey populations appear to be very strong, suggesting that these birds will be around for many generations to enjoy.

If you frequent marshes and other bodies of water, you can probably spot an osprey. Listen for a high “cheee-yerk” call and look for a bird which has a gull-like shape in flight, with trailing legs and arched wings. If you can see the bird's head, look for a dark band around the eyes, which helps the osprey to see across long distances.

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