A Closer Look At Osprey Feet

Donald Shephard

A year ago a neighbor watched as an Osprey plunged head-first towards the Pacific. The bird extended its feet in front just before hitting the water. Its talons grabbed something unseen which towed it across the bay flapping all the way towards some rocks. At the last minute, and with great difficulty, the bird managed to release its hold and escape. It shuddered in flight to rid its oily feathers of water and escaped to fish again presumably for a smaller prey. Osprey feet work so well as fish hooks, that if an Osprey takes hold of a fish too heavy for it to carry, the bird may drown because it cannot disengage itself from the fish.

What makes the Osprey’s grip so formidable? Let us take a closer look at these feet which are supremely adapted for catching fish.

Photo reproduced with permission from the Central Vermont Public Service.

Unlike the talons of most raptors which are concave with a groove on the underside, the Osprey's talons are completely round. They can pierce a fish cleanly, quickly, and deeply. The Osprey’s feet have pads with scales modified into tough, barb-like spicules that help grasp slippery fish. They even have a long talon on the "little" or outer toe, unlike other raptors and they are the only hawk that has a "reversible" toe that they can maneuver in position forward or back to help seize fish. When they contact prey, Osprey talons will reflexively snap closed faster than a human eye can blink.

Other features of the Osprey aid in its efficient hunt for fish. The feathers on its thighs are short, oily and stiff to repel water. Its beak is sharp and hooked, which helps the bird tear through tough fish skins. On top of the beak are nostrils that can close completely when the Osprey plunges into the water to catch a fish.

An Osprey's eyesight is 3-5 times greater than a human being's, and this vision helps it judge the position of a moving fish under a fluid surface. Surrounding the Osprey's eyes is a dark band, which reduces glare when it flies over sunlit waters.

After it has captured its prey, this supreme fisherman flaps powerfully to break free of the water. Normally, an Osprey will aerodynamically position a fish head-first in its talons before it returns to the nest although I have seen a clumsy juvenile toting its lunch by the tail giving the fish a strange bird’s eye view of Point Cabrillo Light House Preserve.

It is a sweet sight to watch an Osprey pack its lunch, circling on the updraft from the bluffs and, fortunately for the ones in this area, their flight back to the nest to feed is not yet hampered by the kleptoparasitism of the Bald Eagle.

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