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Osprey

Pandion haliaetus ORDER: ACCIPITRIFORMES FAMILY: PANDIONIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Unique among North American raptors for its diet of live fish and ability to dive into water to catch them, Ospreys are common sights soaring over shorelines, patrolling waterways, and standing on their huge stick nests, white heads gleaming. These large, rangy hawks do well around humans and have rebounded in numbers following the ban on the pesticide DDT. Hunting Ospreys are a picture of concentration, diving with feet outstretched and yellow eyes sighting straight along their talons.

Ospreys are Nesting

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Keys to identification Help

Hawks
Hawks
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Ospreys are very large, distinctively shaped hawks. Despite their size, their bodies are slender, with long, narrow wings and long legs. Ospreys fly with a marked kink in their wings, making an M-shape when seen from below.

  • Color Pattern

    Ospreys are brown above and white below, and overall they are whiter than most raptors. From below, the wings are mostly white with a prominent dark patch at the wrists. The head is white with a broad brown stripe through the eye. Juveniles have white spots on the back and buffy shading on the breast.

  • Behavior

    Ospreys search for fish by flying on steady wingbeats and bowed wings or circling high in the sky over relatively shallow water. They often hover briefly before diving, feet first, to grab a fish. You can often clearly see an Osprey's catch in its talons as the bird carries it back to a nest or perch.

  • Habitat

    Look for Ospreys around nearly any body of water: saltmarshes, rivers, ponds, reservoirs, estuaries, and even coral reefs. Their conspicuous stick nests are placed in the open on poles, channel markers, and dead trees, often over water.

Range Map Help

Osprey Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Osprey

    Adult
    • Large and lanky raptor
    • Long wings mostly dark brown
    • White crown and throat with dark stripe through yellow eye
    • Sharply hooked black bill
    • © Ron Kube, Alberta, Canada, September 2009
  • Adult female

    Osprey

    Adult female
    • Distinctive facial pattern with bold black stripe through eye
    • Sharply hooked black bill
    • Glowing yellow eye
    • Females usually show dark necklace across white breast
    • © Kim Taylor, Virginia, March 2009
  • Adult female

    Osprey

    Adult female
    • Large, long-winged raptor often seen carrying fish
    • Wings always bent and bowed downwards in flight
    • White breast, belly, and "arm-pits"
    • Under-wings patterned dark closer to tips
    • © Kim Taylor, Virginia, August 2009
  • Adult in flight

    Osprey

    Adult in flight
    • Long, lanky wings
    • Wings always bent and bowing downward in flight
    • Mostly white underneath
    • Black stripe through eye
    • © Laura Erickson, Hawk Ridge, Duluth, Minnesota, September 2009
  • Adult in flight

    Osprey

    Adult in flight
    • Large and lanky raptor
    • Wing shape distinctive in flight: always crooked and bowing downward
    • Mostly white underneath, but wings show dark patterning closer to tips
    • Bold black stripe through eye
    • © Michael J. Andersen, Lake Hodges, San Diego County, California, February 2010
  • Adults feeding juvenile

    Osprey

    Adults feeding juvenile
    • Large and long-winged
    • Mostly dark brown above and white below
    • White crown with dark stripe through yellow eye
    • Juvenile shows buffy chest and darker orange eyes
    • © Kim Taylor, Virginia, June 2011
  • Juvenile

    Osprey

    Juvenile
    • Large, long-winged raptor
    • Sharply hooked black bill
    • Juvenile shows buffy chest and neck, and orange eye
    • Pale scaling on back and wings fades to dark as juvenile ages
    • © Kim Taylor, Virginia, July 2011
  • Juvenile

    Osprey

    Juvenile
    • Long wings
    • Buffy on neck and under-wings
    • Streaky crown
    • Black and white barred tail
    • © Kim Taylor, Virginia, July 2011
  • Juvenile at nest

    Osprey

    Juvenile at nest
    • Long, lanky wings
    • White under-wings close to the body, dark patterned at tips
    • Juvenile shows buffy brown patch on chest
    • Black and white barred tail
    • © Kim Taylor, Virginia, July 2011
  • Adult in dive

    Osprey

    Adult in dive
    • Often seen diving into water from significant height to catch fish
    • Wings pulled back sharply when entering dive
    • Mostly white underneath
    • Dark stripe through eye
    • © Tony Varela, Washington, July 2011

Similar Species

  • Third year

    Bald Eagle

    Third year
    • Similar to Osprey, but larger and heavy-bodied
    • Wings broader, held flat in flight, not angled
    • Bill much larger and thicker than in Osprey
    • No barring on tail
    • © Raymond Lee, Parkhills, Alberta, Canada, February 2010
  • Adult

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Adult
    • Smaller than Osprey with shorter, broader wings
    • Stocky and compact
    • Wings held flat in flight, not bent downward
    • Adults show solid, brick-red tail
    • © Betty Lemley, New Jersey, February 2008
  • Adult

    Turkey Vulture

    Adult
    • Similar in shape to Osprey but wings angled upward, not downward
    • Black body
    • Distinctive two-toned under-wing pattern
    • Small, unfeathered red head
    • © striatus, Maryland, October 2010

Similar Species

Ospreys are the only large raptors with extensive, unmarked white on the belly. Immature Bald Eagles may be extensively mottled with white on their dark brown bodies, but they don’t show the Osprey’s clean white underparts, and young Bald Eagles don’t have white heads, either. Bald Eagles are much stockier and heavier-bodied than the lanky Osprey. Red-tailed Hawks have much stouter, broad wings (without the Osprey’s kink at the wrists) and a shorter, broader tail. Though Red-tailed Hawks usually have pale underparts, they’re streaked with brown, particularly across the belly. It’s also rare to see a Red-tailed Hawk going after fish; they stick primarily to mammals. Turkey Vultures are all dark, and when soaring high in the sky, their long, broad wings are straight rather than kinked.

Regional Differences

None in North America.

Find This Bird

Near open water with an abundant supply of fish, listen for the Osprey’s whistling or chirping calls overhead, or look for this bird's distinctive flight profile and heavy wingbeats. From spring into fall, a boat or raft on a lake or river can provide an especially good vantage point. Scan treetops and other high spots along the shore for perched adults and untidy stick nests piled atop a platform, pole, or snag out in the open.

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