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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: The remarkable osprey is a bird worth watching

Striking plumage, interesting vocalizations, unique hunting style, life-long pair bonding and devoted parenting are just some of the many fascinating aspects of the osprey.

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An osprey is spotted flying over Lake Bemidji in 2020, from the shoreline near Paul Bunyan Park.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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The osprey is a fascinating bird of prey. Often called “fish hawk” or “fish eagle,” these latter names are aptly assigned. Indeed, the osprey’s principal prey is fish. It is no wonder that this elegant raptor makes its home throughout the Land of 10,000 Lakes and its many wetlands and waterways.

Well suited to a fishing lifestyle, ospreys are the only species of raptor with a “reversible” outer toe. This unique adaptation allows the osprey to clutch its prey with two toes in the front and two in the back.

Other characteristics include nostrils that close shut when it dives underwater, in addition to sharp projections underneath the toes and rear-facing scales on its talons, which, together — the projections and scales — enable ospreys to better hold their slippery and flopping fish prey.

Ospreys are easy to identify. With a wingspan of up to six feet and a body length from beak to tail at about two feet, the bird is sizable amongst hawks, falcons and eagles.

In flight, ospreys are sometimes confused with gulls and eagles, but the way ospreys fly and hold their wings will often be enough for proper identification. A distinctive kink at the elbows gives the wings a kind of swept-back appearance in the shape of a subtle-looking “M.”

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If you’re lucky enough to observe an osprey doing what they do best, catching fish, then you’ve seen what really sets them apart from other fishing birds.

Whereas kingfishers dive and skewer fish with dagger-like beaks, and brown pelicans dive in stunning headfirst displays to scoop fishes inside their homely beak pouches and loons slip quietly below the water’s surface to overtake their quarry with beak and speed, the osprey dives with open talons to capture its prey. An osprey, as many observers have come to know, rarely misses.

The name “osprey” has an interesting origin. It is thought to be derived from the Latin word ossifrage, ossifraga or ossifragus, meaning, “bone breaker.” Another explanation for the English name — osprey — is believed to have come from the old French "ospreit," which means, in Latin, "avis praedae" or "bird of prey."

Ospreys’ plumage coloration is classic in the animal kingdom. Colored white below and dark above, this color pattern is often referred to as “disruptive coloration.” Many other species of fishes, amphibians, birds, and mammals exhibit similarly contrasting bellies and dorsums. The white-footed mouse, northern pike, and leopard frog are just a few other examples.

The reason for this pattern is simple. Whether the species is the hunted or the hunter, being able to escape detection is vital to its survival. And ospreys are no different.

While hovering above a lake’s surface, the bird’s white belly blends into the sky above, thus making it difficult for fish and other quarry to see the raptor. Being less visible is key to an osprey’s fishing success.

Nests are made from sticks and can become quite large over the years. Usually built in the tops of trees, especially coniferous trees, ospreys will also use artificial nesting platforms placed on highline poles.

Recognizing ospreys’ willingness to use platforms for nesting, wildlife and power company managers have had positive results by constructing such structures as either stand-alone or on top of existing highline poles and towers. Several of these artificial nesting platforms can be observed on various powerline structures throughout Minnesota.

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The remarkable osprey is a bird worth watching. Striking plumage, interesting vocalizations, unique hunting style, life-long pair bonding and devoted parenting are just some of the many fascinating aspects of this bird of prey.

Closely related to hawks, eagles and falcons, the osprey is nonetheless a different sort of raptor to observe as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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