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Pity the Poor Osprey: Catching up with one of nature's best fisherman 

Do your osprey have large talons?The osprey (Pandion haliaetus), has never had an easy life, and probably never will. It eats fish, and anything that

click to enlarge Do your osprey have large talons?
  • Do your osprey have large talons?
Do your osprey have large talons?The osprey (Pandion haliaetus), has never had an easy life, and probably never will. It eats fish, and anything that eats fish is- somewhere along life's trail-going to have a collision with Man's interests or Nature's. To make it worse, it's that way wherever Osprey live, and, except for Antarctica, they are found worldwide.

Long before Man came onto the scene, osprey and eagles had been conducting a one-way battle for fish that works like this: Osprey spends hours hovering over water that has fish swimming beneath the surface. Osprey spots fish. Osprey catches fish. So far so good...

Those of you who have watched osprey dive after a fish have been thrilled as I have to observe the headlong plummet they make toward their intended target. They've got a lot of things going for them at this point; one is a built-in filter in their eyes that cuts the reflection from the surface of the water, sort of like a Polaroid lens. Diving head first, and with that remarkable eyesight, they can keep a sharp eye on the unsuspecting fish. Just before they hit the water, however, the Osprey does a split-second position shift. The wings are raised directly overheard, and instead of diving headfirst, they are now feet first, and it is in that attitude they hit the water.

Ospreys have l-o-n-g legs, at the end of which are huge, grasping feet with needle-sharp talons. Osprey have about the largest feet of any raptor their size, and on the bottom of their toes are raspy pads.(Incidentally, "Raptor" is from the Latin "to seize.")

When the osprey hits the water, it will penetrate to a little over 18 inches beneath the surface. When the bird's rough-surfaced long toes come into contact with a fish, the feet close like a steel trap, and they don't let go very easily. That's the reason you find scars on the backs of some of the huge rainbow and lake trout. An osprey grabbed the fish, but it was too big to lift out of the water, and the fish is released. However, once in a while, said fish takes the osprey deep under the surface, sometimes drowning the osprey.

Under most conditions, however, once the fish is tight in the osprey's talons it uses its wings to get back to the surface. With a mighty downward stroke, the bird smacks the water with its long wings and literally bounces out of the water. Once back in the air, the osprey immediately shakes itself, shedding excess water. (Old-time fishermen claim this is the osprey giving the fish the "Death Shudder," but the bird is actually shedding excess weight.)

As soon as the water has been shaken off, the osprey turns the fish so it is going headfirst into the air-stream-without dropping it-another neat piece of aerodynamic science. They are agile to say the least.

Ospreys have very efficient wings and therefore gain altitude faster than most hawks. So far so good, but... Not far away, perched in a tall tree and watching this whole scenerio is a bald eagle, which now takes to the wing, on a beeline for the osprey. You can almost hear the despair in the osprey's shrill call when it sees the eagle coming in like a huge fighter jet. The osprey pours on the coal, trying to outrun the eagle, but it is futile.

The eagle closes in doing about 50 miles an hour, heading right for the smaller and lighter osprey. The eagle raises its enormous feet in front of its face to grasp the osprey, but this too is an old feint, the osprey gingerly avoids the feet, but in doing so, looses altitude, which is what the eagle wants. With aerodynamic maneuvering that would make a fighter pilot envious, the eagle dives at the osprey again and slowly and relentlessly driving it toward the surface, or into the trees. Finally, in desperation, the osprey has to drop its prize. Sometimes, it actually throws it away in disgust, which was the eagle's goal at the beginning. With a mighty surge of power in those seven-foot wings, the eagle dives after the fish, most times grasping it in the air before it hits the water or drops into the trees. What an air show!

The female osprey lays between one and four eggs, and it takes from 32 to 43 days for them to hatch. An osprey nest is not a happy place. The first eggs laid are the first to hatch, meaning that the last egg hatches sometimes a week or more after the first. That poor little runt sometimes has a hard time getting enough to eat, and may not make it to the usual 32 to 43 days it takes to fledge, especially if eagles keep stealing fish from its parents.

Then there's the conflict with Man, particularly at fish-hatcheries. An osprey that stumbles on a fish hatchery probably thinks it has died and gone to heaven. Unfortunately, back in the days of DDT, if the chemical didn't thin their eggs and cause almost 100 percent fatality, hatchery personnel shot them. But not any longer...

Today, except for bald eagles, ospreys couldn't have it any better. Most of the DDT is gone, they are no longer shot at fish hatcheries, and fishermen no longer shoot them-at least they hadn't better, the fine for doing so is a healthy one. Wildlife biologists build nesting platforms for them, and you can find osprey nesting east of Bend on Highway 20, on the Deschutes in the city limits of Bend, all the way to Crane Prairie Reservoir, on over to Elk Lake and Hosmer Lake. And if you're paying attention, you can witness the age-old aerial dogfight as bald eagles chase Ospreys and steal their fish.


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