The osprey, or fish hawk, is a large bird of prey that has made a significant comeback in the Finger Lakes Region and across the state since its near-extinction in the 1960s. Like the bald eagle, the osprey is at the top of the aquatic food chain. Its numbers began to decline when DDT came into use for controlling mosquitoes, blackflies, and a variety of other agricultural and forest insect pests after World War II. The pesticide trickled into waterways and became absorbed by waterborne organisms, insects, amphibians and fish.
In a story that parallels that of the bald eagle, the osprey accumulated heavy concentrations of DDT with disastrous results: The pesticide weakened its eggshells, which were then broken by parents during incubation, causing the fish hawk’s reproduction rate to plummet. In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT. Ospreys and bald eagles were both placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and their populations began a slow turnaround.
Ospreys inhabit every continent except Antarctica. In North America, they range throughout Canada and the wilder parts of our northern tier of states from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and along the southern Gulf Coast. Although they are more common in the Adirondacks and on Long Island, osprey nesting territories are on the increase in the Finger Lakes Region as well. These large birds stand about 2 feet tall and have a wingspan approaching 6 feet. And like most birds of prey, females are larger than males. The plumage of both sexes is identical, making size the only sure way of telling them apart.
Ospreys feed mostly on fish, which they catch with their long, curved, razor sharp talons. Unlike the bald eagle, which usually snatches its prey from the surface of the water, the osprey sometimes plunges in deep enough to completely submerge its entire body. After resurfacing, it takes great effort to become airborne again, especially if the bird’s catch is sizable. Whenever I have seen an osprey in flight with a fish, it has always carried it in an aerodynamic head-first position.
New York State wildlife biologists have been monitoring osprey populations for almost 50 years using both aerial and ground survey methods. They have also successfully established a new osprey population in southwestern New York by releasing 36 young ospreys from Long Island into the wild between 1980 and 1987. In 1983, the osprey was removed from the Endangered Species list. In 1999, it was further downgraded from “Threatened” to a species of “Special Concern”. It is no longer listed at all by the US Fish & Wildlife Service.