Osprey 101

Osprey practically live all over the world and, therefore, have many fans worldwide. Our goal is to give you some general info about osprey and focus on our osprey in Montana — specifically the family that lives part of their year at Dunrovin Ranch — to create a deeper understanding of these beautiful raptors.

Here’s a little info to help you understand what the osprey of Montana, and around the world, are all about. Once you know some of the basics, you’ll be able to identify the physical differences between individuals a little better – and it makes osprey watching even more fun!

They’ll live almost anywhere

Osprey can live almost anywhere there is shallow water with abundant fish and safe nesting sites. It’s no wonder that Osprey are found on every continent except Antarctica. This makes them one of the most widely distributed predatory birds. However, Osprey may only breed in certain locations and winter in others. Parts of Australia may be the exception, as the birds tend to remain sedentary there.

In North America, Osprey are found from Alaska and Newfoundland, all the way south to Florida and the Gulf Coast. Montana serves primarily as breeding ground for the industrious birds.

They live long lives

Osprey in flight with a stick near Dunrovin Ranch

Fly softly and carry a big stick. Photo by Erick Greene.

With an average lifespan of seven to ten years, osprey live a relatively long time, in comparison to other bird species.

A wild European Osprey lived to be over 30 years old! In North America, the oldest known female was 23 and the oldest male was 25. It is rare that individuals reach this age.

Montana osprey are big ‘uns

Osprey are considered medium to large raptors. Their body length is typically between 21-24.5 inches, with an average weight of three to four and a half pounds. The average osprey wingspan measures an impressive five to six feet!

Female osprey tend to weigh about 20% more than males, and have a wingspan that is 5-10% greater, although that doesn’t mean they are longer in body.

Regionally, Osprey also vary in size. Tropical and sub-tropical species tend to be smaller than their northern breeding counterparts. Therefore, Montana Osprey are on the larger end of the spectrum.

The ladies like to dress up

Osprey plumage is generally bright white underneath with dark brown patches at their carpal (or wrist) joints, a mottled brown “necklace,” and a dark brown back. Montana Osprey are usually darker in color, while other subspecies have paler accents.

Males often have a slimmer body and narrower wings than the females. Females often have darker plumage and a much more defined necklace.

Heads or tails?

Identifying characteristics include a white head with a dark stripe around each eye. Some people like to say that the Osprey wears a mask, which makes their golden eyes stand out. Their short tails alternate dark and white bands of feathers.

Fancy features

Osprey have a black beak that coordinates well with their pale/blue-gray feet and black talons. The feet appear large and have a blue white tint to them.

Osprey also have several distinguishing features among birds of prey.

They have toes that are of equal length, and the bones in their feet are reticulate (or net-like). They have rounded talons, instead of grooved talons. The Osprey’s outer toe is reversible—a trait it only shares in common with Owls. This allows the to carry their prey with two toes in the front and two behind.

Other features of the Osprey include gripping pads or spicules on their feet, as well as reversed scales that act as barbs. With all these fancy feet-ures, one might argue that there is no better way to grasp a slippery fish!

A young osprey shows off its mottled plumage. Photo by Erick Greene.

What about the babies?

Juvenile osprey resemble the adults, but are more mottled. Some theorize that this helps to camouflage them from predators.

Their wings and back have a buff-colored accents, while their necklace is not as well defined at the adults. Their belly also tends to be more buff than pure white, while the feathers on their head have more streaks. Their eyes also tend to have more of an orange-red flame color, rather than the typical gold of an adult.

Don’t call ’em eagles!

People sometimes confuse Osprey with eagles, but their white underbelly is a give away. It’s also helpful to look at their wings, which are long and narrow, and have four finger-like feathers with a shorter fifth.

You talkin’ to me?

Osprey are known to use up to five different vocalizations to communicate. Although, the two most recognized include a series of sharp high whistles, often described as cheep cheep, or a frenzied, drawn-out “Cheereek!” if the bird is alarmed or excited.

More often than not, the calls are accompanied with a visual display, like a particular flight or posture. Using vocalizations, osprey beg for food, express alarm, illustrate courtship, or defend the nests.

Learn more and donate

For more great information on osprey, visit the Osprey World website. If you enjoy watching the osprey webcam, please consider making a donation to help Dunrovin and the UM maintain and improve it so that we can broadcast these beautiful birds to even more people.

View LiveStream of the Osprey Cam