The Osprey, or “sea hawk”, also called, “fish hawk”, has long proved a puzzle for taxonomists. It has been integrated as both the largest of the hawks, with a wingspan of nearly six feet, and listed as a individual species alongside hawks and eagles. There are four acknowledged sub-species, except that they are not genetically unique. As the name ‘sea hawk’ implies, the osprey’s diet is almost solely fish (up to 99%) and it is a common sight along nearly all the world’s coasts. The osprey is the most widespread of all the raptors, being found on every continent, although it is only an over/wintering migrant to South America.
The osprey’s diet of fish has led to a number of unique evolutionary adaptations. Unlike other raptors, they have two talons facing forward and two backwards, the better to grasp fish when diving from above and plucking their prey from the water. And unlike other raptors, the osprey is capable of diving under water to a depth of one meter. And when under water it can close its nostrils. With wet feathers and a fish in its grasp, it takes a considerable effort for an osprey to get airborne. Once in flight, an osprey will carry a fish headfirst in order to maximize its aerodynamic efficiency.
The osprey is so much more effective in marine environments than other predators, that in some habitats, other large raptors like the Bald or Golden Eagle will attack an osprey with a catch, forcing the osprey to give up its prize.
As with hawks and falcons, the widespread distribution of ospreys has given rise to many stories, myths and legends.
In Greek mythology, Nisos, the King of Megara, transformed himself into an osprey to attack his daughter after she fell in love and ran off with Minos, the King of Crete.
Roman historian, Pliny wrote that adult Ospreys tested their offspring by making them fly to the sun as a test of strength, and that they killed those young that failed in the attempt.
For Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, the osprey is a symbol of abundance and acuity of vision.
In Medieval Europe it was a popular belief that ospreys mesmerized their prey with magic, and that helpless fish offered themselves up to the osprey belly first to be caught. This belief probably arose because of the ospreys’ habit of carrying fish headfirst to make flying easier.
William Shakespeare wrote in Act 4, Scene 5 of Coriolanus -
I think he’ll be to Rome
As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature.
In heraldry, the osprey is depicted as a white eagle.
In Nova Scotia, Canada the osprey was adopted as the official bird of the province in 1994.
In modern times, the osprey has become a powerful symbol of conservation and environmental protection. During the 1950′s – 1960′s in the United States, the widespread use of the pesticide DDT had devastating effects of the osprey. DDT was washed from farmers fields by the rain into streams and rivers, where it became increasingly concentrated as it moved up the food chain. As an apex predator, the osprey’s diet of fish nearly proved its undoing, as high concentrations of DDT effected the osprey’s ability to produce eggs with strong enough shells to survive to hatching.
The book, Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson brought this to the public’s attention in 1962 and made the New York Times best-seller list. DDT was banned in 1972. The ban on DDT, public efforts to protect osprey habitat, and a campaign to build osprey nesting platforms, ultimately resulted in the recovery of osprey populations. Today, the osprey is prominently featured on over fifty different stamps around the world, and is a symbol of the success of the environmental movement.
If you love Mother Earth, a tattoo of an osprey might be the perfect way to express it.
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