These Adaptations Make the Osprey a Fantastic Fisher

After tens of millions of years, the bird has changed little since it diverged from eagles and hawks.

Osprey. Illustration: Emily Poole

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of the National Audubon Society, and is a special excerpt from the recently released anthology BirdNote: Chirps, Quirks, and Stories of 100 Birds from the Popular Public Radio ShowWe'll be sharing selections from the book all April. And remember, you can catch BirdNote episodes daily on public radio stations nationwide.


To the untrained eye, the Osprey looks just like a bird of prey should. Talons, hooked beak, vivid yellow eyes. But it also has some characteristics that make it truly unique among raptors. Especially when catching fish.  

In common with most raptors, it has four long toes—three in front and one in back. As the bird reaches for a fish, its outer front toe swivels to the rear, giving it two grasping talons front and back. And those toes are lined with short, stiff spikes for extra grip. The Osprey’s nostrils shut tight as it hits the water. Then as it ascends, it shakes itself off, shedding water easily thanks to its oily feathers. In fact, it’s the only raptor that has this oily plumage. Its long, slender, arched wings help the Osprey get clear of the water too, as it takes flight with the fish’s head facing the front—the most aerodynamically efficient position.

This Osprey we see today—just one species worldwide—has changed little since tens of millions of years ago, when its ancestors diverged onto a unique evolutionary track, distinct from eagles and hawks. Suggesting that over this period, it has remained particularly well suited to its environment. Thanks to these adaptations. 


Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Osprey [106651] recorded by R. Little.
BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.

Producer: John Kessler

Executive Producer: Dominic Black

Written by Bob Sundstrom

© 2016 Tune In to Nature.org     March 2016  

BirdNote: Chirps, Quirks, and Stories of 100 Birds from the Popular Radio Show, edited by Ellen Blackstone, illustrations by Emily Poole, Sasquatch Books, 205 pages, $22.95. Buy it online at Powells.

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