OSPREY, or Ospray, a word said to be corrupted from “Ossifrage,” Lat. ossifraga, bone-breaker. The Ossifraga of Pliny (H.N. x. 3) and some other classical writers seems to have been the Lämmergeyer (q.v.); but the name, not inapplicable in that case, has been transferred to another bird which is no breaker of bones, save incidentally those of the fishes it devours.[1] The osprey is a rapacious bird, of middling size and of conspicuously-marked plumage, the white of its lower parts, and often of its head, contrasting sharply with the dark brown of the back and most of its upper parts when the bird is seen on the wing. It is the Falco haliaetus of Linnaeus, but was, in 1810, established by J. C. Savigny (Ois. de l’Égypte, p. 35) as the type of a new genus Pandion. It is closely related to the family Falconidae, but is the representative of a separate family, Pandionidae. Pandion differs from the Falconidae not only pterylologically, as observed by C. L. Nitzsch, but also osteologically, as pointed out by A. Milne-Edwards (Ois. foss. France, ii. pp. 413, 419). In some of the characters in which it differs structurally from the Falconidae, it agrees with certain of the owls; but the most important parts of its internal structure, as well as of its pterylosis, forbid a belief that there is any near alliance of the two groups. The special characters of the family are the presence of a reversible outer toe, the absence of an aftershaft and the feathering of the tibiae.

The osprey is one of the most cosmopolitan birds-of-prey. From Alaska to Brazil, from Lapland to Natal, from Japan to Tasmania, and in some of the islands of the Pacific, it occurs as a winter-visitant or as a resident. Though migratory in Europe at least, it is generally independent of climate. It breeds equally on the half-thawed shores of Hudson’s Bay and on the cays of Honduras, in the dense forests of Finland and on the barren rocks of the Red Sea, in Kamchatka and in West Australia. Among the countries it does not frequent are Iceland and New Zealand. Where, through abundance of food, it is numerous—as in former days was the case in the eastern part of the United States—the nests of the fish-hawk (to use its American name) may be placed on trees to the number of three hundred close together. Where food is scarcer and the species accordingly less plentiful, a single pair will occupy an isolated rock, and jealously expel all intruders of their kind, as happens in Scotland.[2] Few birds lay eggs so beautiful or so rich in colouring: their white or pale ground is spotted, blotched or marbled with almost every shade of purple, orange and red—passing from the most delicate lilac, buff and peach-blossom, through violet, chestnut and crimson, to a nearly absolute black. The fierceness with which ospreys defend their eggs and young, in addition to the dangerous situation not infrequently chosen for the eyry, make the task of robbing the nests difficult.

The term “osprey,” applied to the nuptial plumes of the egrets in the feather trade, is derived from the French esprit; it has nothing to do with the osprey bird, and its use has been supposed to be due to a confusion with “spray.”  (A. N.) 

  1. Another supposed old form of the name is “Orfraie”; but that is said by M. Rolland (Faune popul. France, ii. p. 9, note), quoting M. Suchier (Zeitschr. röm. Philol. i. p. 432), to arise from a mingling of two wholly different sources; (1) Oripelargus, Oriperagus, Orprais and (2) Ossifraga. “Orfraie” again is occasionally interchanged with Effraie (which, through such dialectical forms as Fresaie, Fressaia, is said to come from the Latin praesaga), the ordinary French name for the barn-owl, Aluco flammeus (see Owl). According to Skeat’s Dictionary (i. p. 408), “Asprey” is the oldest English form; but “Osprey” is given by Cotgrave, and is found as early as the 15th century.
  2. Two good examples of the different localities chosen by this bird for its nest are illustrated in Ootheca Wolleyana, pls. B. & H.