Birds – American Osprey

(Pandion haliaetus carolinensis)

Called also : FISH HAWK

Length—Male 2 feet, or a trifle less; female larger.

Male and Female—Upper parts dusky brown, the feathers edged with white as a bird grows old; head and nape varied with white and a dark stripe on side of head; under parts white; the breast of male sometimes slightly, that of female always, spotted with grayish brown; tail with six or eight obscure dark bars. Bill blackish and with long hook; iris red or yellow; long, powerful feet, grayish blue.

Range—North America from Hudson Bay and Alaska to northern South America and the West Indies; nesting throughout its North American range.

Season—Summer resident, March to October, except in southern part of range.

Is there a more exhilarating sight in the bird kingdom than the plunge of the osprey ? From the height where it has been circling and coursing above the water, it will quickly check itself and hover for an instant at sight of a fish swimming near the surface; then, closing its great wings, it darts like a streak of feathered lightning, and with unerring aim strikes the water with a loud splash. Perhaps it will disappear below for a second before it rises, scattering spray about it in its struggles to clear the surface, and fly upward with its prey grasped in its powerful talons. The fish is never carried tail end foremost; if caught so, the hawk has been seen turning it about in mid air. Small fry are usually eaten a-wing; larger game are borne off to a perch, to be devoured at leisure; and it is said that when an osprey strikes its talons through the flesh of a fish too heavy to be lifted from the water, the prey turns captor and drowns his tormentor, whose claws reaching his vitals soon end his life, when bird and fish, locked in a death grasp, are washed ashore. The osprey rarely touches fish of value for the table; catfish, suckers, and such prey as no one grudges it, form its staple food. It also eats with relish dead fish lying on the beach.

The bald eagle, perched at a high point of vantage, takes instant note of the successful fisher, and with a majestic swoop arrives before the osprey has a chance to devour its prey. Now a desperate chase begins if the intimidated bird has not already relaxed its grasp of the prize; and pursuing the hawk higher and higher, the eagle relentlessly torments it until it is glad to drop the fish for the pirate to seize and bear away, leaving it temporary peace. Again the industrious osprey secures a glistening, wriggling victim; again the eagle pursues his unwilling purveyor. After unmerciful persecution, a number of fish hawks will band together and drive away the robber.

Birds of this order show strong affection for their life-long mates and the young, and for an old nest that is often a true home at all seasons, and to which they return year after year if unmolested, simply repairing damages inflicted by winter storms. The osprey also shows a marked preference for a certain perch to which it carries its prey, and there it will sit sometimes for hours at a time. The ground below is heavily strewn with bones, scales, and other indigestible parts of fish. An immense accumulation of sticks, rushes, weed stalks, shredded bark, salt hay, odds and ends gathered among the rubbish of seaside cottages, feathers, and mud make old nests, with their annual additions, bulky, conspicuous affairs in the tree tops. New nests are often rather small, considering the size of the bird. Both mates incubate the eggs, which are from two to four, extremely variable in size and coloration, sometimes plain dull white, sometimes almost wholly chocolate brown, but normally buff, heavily marked with chocolate, especially around the larger end. Colonies of nesters are frequently reported along our coasts, and instances of a pair of grackles utilizing a corner of the osprey’s ample cradle for theirs are not rare. In four weeks or less after their eggs are laid, the fish hawks are kept busy shredding food for their downy, helpless young.