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North American Osprey (Pandion Heliaetus Carolinensis)

By: C.M.Shorter

North American Osprey
Sawgrass Marsh with Spatterdock
Pictures of Ospreys >>

The North American Osprey is a very large bird reaching 2 feet in length with a remarkable wingspan over 5 feet and weights of between 3-4 lbs. Coloration of the Osprey is very distinctive – they have a deep dark brown back with a stark white underside and white head. As with most raptors, Osprey have a short hooked beak and exceptional vision. Facial marking are prominent with a dark stripe running from its golden eye to the back of its head that widens behind the eye line. Sexually dimorphic, females are slightly larger than the male of the species and often have an unusual chest marking that looks somewhat like a speckled necklace. Osprey in the order “Falconiformes”, and subfamily “Pandioninae” are one of the largest of raptors in the world. Taxonomic breakdown of the Osprey’s scientific name “Pandion” refers to the mythic King of Athens whose daughters were turned into birds in Greek mythology. The word “Haliaetus” comes from the Greek word “Halos” (Sea or Salt) combined with “Aetos” or Eagle. However, it is the Latin word “Ossifragus” which translates to “bone breaker” that gave this bird its common name –“Osprey”.


Although similar to other birds of prey – Red-Tailed Hawks , Eagles and Kites, Osprey excel at aerodynamic dives while hunting. Often referred to as Sea Hawks or Fish Hawks, the Osprey is the only diurnal bird of prey to feed almost exclusively on live fish. That puts the Osprey right among the top predators of the aquatic food chain. Osprey are known to soar at altitudes of 50 to 180 feet hovering over their prey and then diving full force feet first, often completely submerging themselves to bring up their catch. Being aerial fishers, Ospreys have a unique feature – their feet have spurred pads designed for holding onto slippery prey. Osprey have an opposable outer front toe. While perched they position 3 toes forward - one to the back. During the hunt, Osprey rotate the outer toe positioning 2 toes back and 2 forward. The Osprey’s feet are equipped with slender hard bodies spears called “spicules” or spikes for superior gripping power. Observed in flight you will notice Osprey wings taper to a rounded tip and flight feathers are white banded with black. It is interesting to see an Osprey flying with prey as they carry the fish head first to streamline the flight pattern. In fact, the Osprey “hover and dive” hunting techniques are so stealth Boeing named the V-22 Osprey Tiltrotor Aircraft after this bird of prey. The aircraft is designed to take off and land like a helicopter “hovering” but once airborne the aircraft carrier converts into a turboprop airplane. Quite a tribute to the Osprey’s natural flight and hunting techniques as the world’s top aeronautic engineers try to duplicate these amazing flight patterns.

Osprey populations fare well these days having a large worldwide territory range spread throughout all continents excepting Antarctica. The North American Osprey ranges from Alaska across the wilderness of Canada, southward to Mexico, the Caribbean and into South America. The Florida population increases during the winter months as many North American Osprey winter over in the plentiful feeding grounds of the Everglades. High visibility with nests found on many man made structures makes the Osprey a prime candidate as an “Indicator Species” for detection of habitat conditions, fish populations and overall environmental health. At one point, Osprey were severely threatened by the chemical contaminant DDT as were all of the great raptors including the Bald Eagle. Ingestion of this toxic pesticide through the food chain caused the birds to lay eggs with extremely thin shells and the contamination was devastating to hatch rates. With the use of DDT banned in the United States in 1972 along with a change in the U.S. Coast Guard’s policy of removing Osprey nests from channel markers, Osprey populations began to make a comeback.

There are four subspecies of Osprey worldwide divided geographically with breeding territory as follows:

North American Osprey ( Pandion haliaetus carolinensis) described here, P.h. haliaetus occupy Europe, North Africa & Asia. The other two species of Osprey are both non-migratory – P.h. ridgwayi is found throughout the Bahamas, Mexico, Cuba and Belize. Finally P.h. leucocephalus makes Australia and the Southwest Pacific its home. The North American Osprey is particularly prevalent in some urban areas bound by open waterways and one such place they are found in large numbers is the Chesapeake Bay area.

Osprey nests are huge and easily sighted from the ground. Built mainly of large sticks, sod, and grasses high up platform style in trees, on cliffs, in fact – on almost any high man-made structure. Osprey nest are often seen on bridges, buoys, channel markers, towering at the top of power poles – almost any elevated platform throughout their range, although nests in some areas are constructed on the ground. Nest building is very important skill in attracting a mate as most females gravitate to the male who can provide the best nest for her young! The nests Osprey build are works of art– and in modern times nest constructions often contains some rather unconventional material such as plastic bags & jugs, rope of all kinds, even stuffed animals! High nesting usually occurs near waterway food sources and also protects the nests from land predators like the Raccoon. Osprey usually mate for life with one brood per year. Females lay 2 to 4 eggs of a creamy white to cinnamon color flecked with reddish brown spots with an incubation period of just over a month. Incubation and rearing young is shared however males do most of the hunting while the females guard the nest. It is interesting that the chicks hatch in sequence 3-5 days apart. Parents tend to the strongest hatchlings first and weaker birds sometimes are forced move to another nest and find foster parents who may take better care of them. Fledging occurs at about 8 weeks of age. Sexual maturity occurs at about 3 years of age.

The Osprey nests throughout Everglades National Park, the 3 rd largest park in the nation covering more than 2,000 square miles. They are quite at home in this nature lover’s paradise nesting among the hardwood hammock and cypress swamps along with over 300 other species of birds. Osprey live and breed side by side with the many Heronand Egret species found in our tropical climate and alongside birds like the Anhinga with their long snake like necks so nicknamed the “Snake-Bird”, Roseate Spoonbills, Brown Pelicans and another mighty raptor and bird of prey – the bird crowned our as National Symbol – the Bald Eagle. Osprey nest in this rich, diverse terrain also home to the American Alligator, American Crocodile, the Florida Panther, colorful Tree Snails and wild orchids that are part of this fragile ecosystem.

TigerHomes does not currently house any Osprey at the Sanctuary although they nest naturally in the nearby Everglades. A popular thread in the Tigerhomes member’s Forum referenced the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge which has a spectacular webcam view honed in on a breeding pair of Osprey anchored to the nesting platform. These migratory raptors have survived the test of time, becoming as familiar with the Tropical Rainforest as the wetland waters of the Everglades and the pristine forests of the northern woods. Year after year the migratory Osprey pairs return to the same nesting sites to complete the circle of life.

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As always, we hope you enjoyed this article featured as part of TigerHomes Sanctuary's continuing Educational Series. We also hope you will take this opportunity to visit our world renowned Animal Cams . You are invited to take your own snapshots and enter your pictures into our Viewer Gallery Contest for a chance to win monthly prizes! The SANCTUARY is a permanent home to Rare White Tigers, Golden Tigers, Bengal Tigers, Siberian Tigers, African Lions and Lemurs . Our residents are quite the characters and simply amazing to watch in their natural habitats. It is our Mission to preserve and protect these many Endangered Species. You can help save Endangered Species right now by visiting our Gift Shop. Many animals of the Everglades can be seen first-hand in our TigerHomes Educational DVD Series, Florida's Wild Future.

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More on Florida Everglades:
Pictures of Florida Everglades | Map of Florida Everglades | Animals Florida Everglades | Marjory Stoneman Douglas | Everglades Endangered Species

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