Raptor Identification

Pandion haliaetus


IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern
Raptor Population Index Assessment: 64% of sites showing stable counts
Conservation Concerns: Habitat Degradation, Contaminants, Collisions
Group: Osprey
Size: L 21-26” / WS 59-67”


Osprey is one of the most unique North American raptors. They are built like a gull, dive for fish feet first, and are distinctly plumaged. Osprey is a large bird, only slightly smaller than an eagle, but with a slimmer build. Ospreys are easy to identify even at long distances, making them a favorite among birders. But, they are sometimes confused with the similar Bald Eagle or a large gull. Osprey is found near water when breeding, building bulky stick nests in dead trees, on tall light fixtures, power poles, billboards, or platforms provided for them.

Ospreys prey almost exclusively on fish and rarely scavenge like eagles. Instead, they actively search and hover over waterways until they spot a fish close to the surface. Then, they plunge feet-first into the water to seize medium-sized or sometimes surprisingly large fish with their powerful talons. Ospreys have specialized feet for grasping fish: all four talons are curved more so than on other raptors, and the toes have tiny spines or “spicules” on the bottom that help them hang on to their slippery prey. Most raptors have three toes in the front and one in the back, but Osprey can rotate the outer toe backward to help them carry fish, which they typically do head-first for optimal aerodynamics.


  • Perched, the head appears small and lacks a supraorbital ridge above the eye that gives most raptors a fierce look
  • Extremely lanky wings that appear gull-like, but lack sharply pointed wing tips
  • In a glide, wings form a distinct ‘M’ shape
  • Slim-bodied compared to vultures and eagles


  • Soars and glides on bowed wings
  • Extremely steady flier, soaring in wide circles and gaining lift easily
  • Readily uses powered flight for long stretches, and does not avoid water or desert crossings like most raptors
  • Wing beats are slow, stiff, shallow, and almost “mechanical”


  • Resembles an adult Bald Eagle with a blackish topside and white head, but the head has a broad black eye-line, and the tail is blackish with faint pale bands
  • Brilliant white underneath with blackish flight feathers and wrists, unlike immature Bald Eagle, which has a whitish belly or less white on underwings
  • From below, the tail can appear whitish or pinkish when the tail is fanned
  • The Adult male and female are identical in plumage with unmarked upperwings, but males tend to be less streaked on the chest than adult females and juveniles; adults have yellow eyes
  • The Juvenile has pale-fringed upperwings, orange eyes, and often shows streaking on the crown, and is often more rufous-washed on the underside

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