Unable to dive to more than about three feet below the water's surface, Ospreys gravitate toward shallow fishing grounds, frequenting deep water only where fish school near the surface. Ospreys nest in a wide variety of locations, from Alaska to New England, Montana to Mexico, Carolina to California; their habitat includes almost any expanse of shallow, fish-filled water, including rivers, lakes, reservoirs, lagoons, swamps, and marshes. Whatever the location, Osprey nesting habitat must include an adequate supply of accessible fish within a maximum of about 12 miles of the nest; open, usually elevated nest sites free from predatory mammals such as raccoons, and a long enough ice-free season to allow the young to fledge.Back to top
The Osprey is the only hawk on the continent that eats almost exclusively live fish. In North America, more than 80 species of live fresh- and saltwater fish account for 99 percent of the Osprey’s diet. Captured fish usually measure about 6–13 inches in length and weigh one-third to two-thirds of a pound. The largest catch on record weighed about 2.5 pounds. On very rare occasions, Ospreys have been observed feeding on fish carcasses or on birds, snakes, voles, squirrels, muskrats, and salamanders. Ospreys probably get most of the water they need from the flesh of their prey, although there are reports of adults drinking on hot days. Back to top
Ospreys require nest sites in open surroundings for easy approach, with a wide, sturdy base and safety from ground predators (such as raccoons). Nests are usually built on snags, treetops, or crotches between large branches and trunks; on cliffs or human-built platforms. Usually the male finds the site before the female arrives.
Osprey nests are built of sticks and lined with bark, sod, grasses, vines, algae, or flotsam and jetsam. The male usually fetches most of the nesting material—sometimes breaking dead sticks off nearby trees as he flies past—and the female arranges it. Nests on artificial platforms, especially in a pair’s first season, are relatively small—less than 2.5 feet in diameter and 3–6 inches deep. After generations of adding to the nest year after year, Ospreys can end up with nests 10–13 feet deep and 3–6 feet in diameter—easily big enough for a human to sit in.
|Clutch Size:||1-4 eggs|
|Number of Broods:||1 brood|
|Egg Length:||2.2-2.7 in (5.5-6.8 cm)|
|Egg Width:||1.6-2.0 in (4.2-5 cm)|
|Incubation Period:||36-42 days|
|Nestling Period:||50-55 days|
|Egg Description:||Cream to pinkish cinnamon; wreathed and spotted with reddish brown.|
|Condition at Hatching:||Capable of limited motion. Covered with down and with eyes open.|
Adept at soaring and diving but not as maneuverable as other hawks, Ospreys keep to open areas, flying with stiff wingbeats in a steady, rowing motion. Primarily solitary birds, they usually roost alone or in small winter flocks of six to ten. Nesting Ospreys defend only the immediate area around their nest rather than a larger territory; they vigorously chase other Ospreys that encroach on their nesting areas. In breeding season, males perform an aerial "sky-dance," sometimes called "fish-flight." With dangling legs, often clasping a fish or nesting material in his talons, the male alternates periods of hovering with slow, shallow swoops as high as 600 feet or more above the nest site. Sustaining this display for 10 minutes or more, he utters repeated screaming calls while gradually descending in an undulating fashion to the nest. Back to top
Ospreys are a conservation success story and overall their populations grew by 2.5% per year from 1966 to 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 500,000 with 21% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 28% in Canada, and 3% in Mexico. The species rates a 7 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Osprey is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. The species' decline was halted by pesticide bans and the construction of artificial nest sites. Osprey numbers crashed in the early 1950s to 1970s, when pesticides poisoned the birds and thinned their eggshells. Along the coast between New York City and Boston, for example, about 90 percent of breeding pairs disappeared. Osprey studies provided key support for wider legal arguments against the use of persistent pesticides. After the 1972 U.S. DDT ban, populations rebounded, and the Osprey became a conservation success symbol. But Ospreys are still listed as endangered or threatened in some states—especially inland, where pesticides decimated or extirpated many populations. As natural nest sites have succumbed to tree removal and shoreline development, specially constructed nest platforms and other structures such as channel markers and utility poles have become vital to the Osprey’s recovery. Sadly, a growing cause of death for Ospreys is entanglement at the nest: the adults incorporate baling twine and other discarded lines into their nests; these can end up wrapped around a chick's feet and injure it or keep it from leaving the nest.Back to top
Consider putting up a nest platform to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. You'll find plans for building a nest structure of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.Back to top
Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.
Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.
Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.
Poole, A. F., R. O. Bierregaard, and M. S. Martell. 2002. Osprey (Pandion haliaetus). In The Birds of North America, No. 683 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.
Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.