Physical Description

  • Large birds with a wingspan of over five feet.
  • Sharp claws and beaks for catching prey.
  • Adults: distinctive coloration, as dark brown/black wings and back contrast with white belly and head. Especially distinctive coloration in flight, with strongly barred flight feathers. White head has dark brown stripe through the yellow eye. Beak black and strongly hooked.
  • Juveniles: slightly lighter brown feathers, fine white spotting on the upper wings and back.


  • Live all over North America, in a wide variety of temperatures.
  • Live on every continent but Antarctica.
  • Breeding: spend the summers in Canada.
  • Non-breeding: spend the winters in the southern United States.
  • Migrating: migrate through central US, Mexico and central America to get to breeding grounds.
  • Non-migrating: year-round in northern California and southeast United States.


  • Live near any water with lots of fish, including rivers, lakes, and the ocean.
  • Can live near salt or freshwater.
  • They build nests in high places like trees, cliffs, or manmade platforms. Dive down to fish from their nests.


  • Nests are built high up for safety from ground predators, in places like trees, cliffs, or manmade platforms.
  • The male normally finds the spot before the female arrives.
  • The male usually fetches most of the nesting material – sticks, sod, grasses, vines, algae, or things floating in the water – and the female arranges it.
  • Ospreys often mate for life and will use the same nest year after year.
  • The female lays 1-4 cream to pinkish colored eggs that will hatch in 36-42 days.
  • Osprey eggs do not hatch all at once. The first chick emerges up to five days before the last one. The older hatchling dominates its younger siblings, and can monopolize the food brought by the parents.


  • Ospreys are carnivores that only eat live fish they have caught.
  • Occasionally eat small mammals, birds, and reptiles if fish are rare.


  • Osprey chicks and eggs may be stolen out of the nest by raccoons, skunks, foxes, or snakes.
  • Adult osprey can be prey to other large birds, such as owls and eagles.

Interesting Facts

  • All ospreys, except the Eastern Osprey in Australia, are the same species!
  • Ospreys will strike for a fish at the surface of the water feet-first, grabbing the fish out of the water with their sharp talons..
  • Ospreys were seriously endangered due to the effects of DDT and other pesticides. Since these pesticides were banned in 1972, ospreys have made a healthy comeback..

Hear an Osprey’s alarm call near nest

Hear an Osprey’s peeps and squeaks

Sources: Audubon Society;; Chesapeake Bay Program; National Wildlife Federation; Audubon Field Guide

Photo: Matthew Meier

See an osprey in person at Living Coast Discovery Center!