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Juvenile osprey in nest
Osprey on a nesting platform. Photo by Barbara Saunders.

Scientific Name: Pandion haliaetus

New York Status: Special Concern
Federal Status: Not Listed


The osprey is a large bird of prey measuring 22-25 inches with a wingspan of 4-6 feet. The sexes are nearly alike in plumage, but the female is slightly larger than the male. Adult plumage is dark brown above and white below. The white head has a dark crown with a characteristic dark brown streak on each side. Juvenile plumage resembles that of the adult, with buff to white tips on the feathers of the back and upper wing. In flight, the osprey's long, narrow wings appear to have a crook at the wrist where dark patches are also apparent.

Life History

map showing the migration range for osprey
Osprey range map from Birds of the World,
maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Ospreys feed primarily on live fish, which they catch by using their long, hooked talons. While hunting, an osprey sometimes plunges deep enough into the water in order to momentarily submerge its entire body. The female lays one to four (usually three) eggs in the spring in a large nest of sticks constructed at the top of a dead tree. Nesting platforms and other man-made structures are also commonly used. They also occasionally nest on the ground. The nest is often used year after year and can become quite large (up to 10 feet high!) as more material is added prior to each nesting season. The young fledge at about eight weeks of age, then remain in the area of the nest for about two months.

Distribution and Habitat

Ospreys breed on every continent except Antarctica. Only one of the five subspecies, Pandion haliaetus, occurs in North America. Here, its breeding range extends from Northwestern Alaska across Canada south to Baja California in the west and to the Gulf States in the east.

In New York, there are two main breeding populations, one on Long Island and the other in the Adirondack Mountains. Within its range, the osprey prefers to make its home along the coastline, and on lakes and rivers.


The decline of this species was caused by DDT-induced eggshell thinning, which reduced the reproductive output of breeding pairs. In turn, the breeding population declined from an estimated 1,000 active nests in the 1940s between New York City and Boston, to an estimated 150 nests in 1969.

Since the ban of the insecticide DDT in New York in 1971, and in the rest of the country in 1972, the population has slowly been making a comeback. In 1995, there were 230 breeding pairs on Long Island alone. In 1983, the osprey was down graded to "Threatened" from its 1976 listing as "Endangered", and in 1999 it was downgraded from "Threatened" to "Special Concern."

Map of Osprey distribution in NY

Management and Research Needs

The osprey is probably the longest studied and monitored raptor in New York. DEC monitors the status and productivity of the majority of New York's population. Each year, both ground and aerial surveys are conducted by NYSDEC to document osprey nests in the state.

From 1980-1987, the DEC released 36 young ospreys taken from nests on Long Island in an attempt to establish a third or "satellite" population in southwestern New York. During the seven years of the project, 30 young ospreys were released into the wild. This has lead to successful nests in the area, including nine nesting pairs in 1998. There are also breeding pairs in Central New York and in Southeastern New York in Sullivan County.

Watchable Wildlife

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When looking for wildlife in New York, visit the Watchable Wildlife webpage for the best locations for finding your favorite mammal, bird, reptile, or insect. New York State has millions of acres of State Parks, forests and wildlife management areas that are home to hundreds of wildlife species, and all are open to the public. Choose from hundreds of trails and miles of rivers as well as marshes and wetlands.  

Remember when viewing wildlife: 

  • Don't feed wildlife and leave wild baby animals where you find them. 

  • Keep quiet, move slowly and be patient. Allow time for animals to enter the area. 

Where to Watch for Osprey

Osprey feed on fish, so look for them along coastlines on Long Island, and on Adirondack lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Osprey lay eggs in a large nest of sticks constructed at the top of a dead tree or on artificial nesting platforms or other structures.

What to Listen for

  • Slow whistled guard call - kyew kyew kyew
  • Alarm call - short clear whistle to faster, higher squeal

When to Watch

Osprey are typically in New York State from April to September. Some migrate to South America for the winter.

The Best Places to See Osprey

Click on the links below to get more information about each site.

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    Albany, NY 12233-4754
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