A unique thing about Ospreys is that they are a family of one. That’s all, one species worldwide. There are no “Great Red-eyed Ospreys” living in the Alps or “Bow-Legged Ospreys” on the beach in Malibu. In contrast, the hummingbird family has more than 300 different species of various shapes, sizes and colors. Whether you are seeing the Osprey that hangs out at the Southwire Lake or one that shows up on your bus tour of the jungles of New Guinea, they are all the same bird. Nature got it right the first time and evolution didn’t need to make changes.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, the Osprey declined precipitously throughout much of North America as DDT and similar pesticides caused eggshell thinning. Ospreys, once abundant in Georgia, especially along the coast and in the Okefenokee Swamp, declined to less than 50 nesting pairs. In 1973, the year DDT was banned, there were only 10 nesting Ospreys in Massachusetts. The DDT ban, extensive releases of young birds, and the construction of artificial nest sites helped the Osprey to recover. The Georgia population has jumped from its low to more than 300 nests today. Similar projects have also been successful. Now there are nearly as many Osprey nests in Georgia as there are Dunkin’ Dounuts franchises.
The Osprey eats live fish. It is the only living raptor that plunges into water, much like a kingfisher. But the Osprey doesn’t grab fish in its beak like other diving birds – it goes in feet first, catching fish with its powerful talons. Ospreys have an unusual fourth toe that can move front-to-back to help them grip the fish. In addition to their weird fourth toe, they have scales on their feet to help them hold onto the slippery fish. Once airborne with a fish, the bird will usually maneuver the fish so that its head faces forward. It is thought that having the fish facing forward makes it more aerodynamic for flying – plus it allows the fish to enjoy the view.
Most of us know Ospreys from the huge stick nests they build. Historically, they have nested in the crowns of dead trees but like the Barn Swallow, they have found ways to exploit man-made structures. Now, they build their massive nests on channel markers, utility poles, communications towers, artificial nest platforms, and water towers.
Ospreys are beautiful birds of prey. And even though they are creatures of the wild world and not “ours,” we should all be proud of the many people who worked to bring them back from the brink. Without their efforts, the Osprey might have gone the way of the Passenger Pigeon, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and the nickel Coke.
(Tate is a Carrollton resident and local bird enthusiast.)