At a Glance
A very distinctive fish-hawk, formerly classified with other hawks but now placed in a separate family of its own. Along coastlines, lakes, and rivers almost worldwide, the Osprey is often seen flying over the water, hovering, and then plunging feet-first to catch fish in its talons. After a successful strike, the bird rises heavily from the water and flies away, carrying the fish head-forward with its feet. Bald Eagles sometimes chase Ospreys and force them to drop their catch. In many regions, landowners put up poles near the water to attract nesting Ospreys.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Hawk-like Birds, Hawks and Eagles
Coasts and Shorelines, Freshwater Wetlands, Lakes, Ponds, and Rivers, Saltwater Wetlands
Alaska and The North, California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Northwest, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southeast, Southwest, Texas, Western Canada
Direct Flight, Soaring
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
Some are permanent residents in southern Florida; migratory elsewhere. Migrants travel singly, not in flocks, often following coastlines, lake shores, rivers, or mountain ridges.
21-24" (53-61 cm). W. 4' 6 -6' (1.4-1.8 m). Very large. In flight, the long wings are held above horizontal, with a distinct bend at wrist. Soaring at a distance, suggests a large gull more than a hawk. Sharp pattern below (with black wrist patches), dark back, black face stripe. Juvenile has pale scaling on back. Adult female may show more streaks on chest.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Mallard or Herring Gull
Fingered, Long, Narrow
Songs and Calls
Loud musical chirping.
Rivers, lakes, coast. Found near water, either fresh or salt, where large numbers of fish are present. May be most common around major coastal estuaries and salt marshes, but also regular around large lakes, reservoirs, rivers. Migrating Ospreys are sometimes seen far from water, even over the desert.
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3, sometimes 2-4. Creamy white, blotched with brown. Incubation is by both parents but mostly by female, about 38 days.
Female remains with young most of time at first, sheltering them from sun and rain; male brings fish, female feeds them to young. Age of young at first flight averages about 51-54 days. 1 brood per year.
Flies slowly over water, pausing to hover when fish spotted below; if fish is close enough to surface, the Osprey plunges feet-first, grasping prey in its talons.
Almost entirely fish. Typically feeds on fish 4-12" long. Type of fish involved varies with region; concentrates on species common in each locale, such as flounder, smelt, mullet, bullhead, sucker, gizzard shad. Aside from fish, rarely eats small mammals, birds, or reptiles, perhaps mainly when fish are scarce.
Courtship displays include pair circling high together; male may fly high and then dive repeatedly in vicinity of nest site, often carrying a fish or stick. Nest site is usually on top of large tree (often with dead or broken top) not far from water. Also nests on utility poles, duck blinds, other structures, including poles put up for them. May nest on ground on small islands, or on cliffs or giant cactus in western Mexico. Site typically very open to sky. Nest (built by both sexes) is bulky pile of sticks, lined with smaller materials. Birds may use same nest for years, adding material each year, so that nest becomes huge.
Was seriously endangered by effects of pesticides in mid-20th century; since DDT and related pesticides were banned in 1972, Ospreys have made a good comeback in many parts of North America.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Osprey. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Osprey
Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.