By Melissa Wynn
Bald Eagles and Osprey (also known as Fish Hawks) make their living near the same waterways and lakes that bring fisherman from all over the world to Northern California. Local anglers will tell you that watching either of these rambunctious raptors rip their dinner from the water is a sensational, although fairly common sight.
Bald Eagles fish by first scoping out the water for signs of fish swimming near the surface. They watch carefully from the air or from a nearby perch. When a fish is spotted, the eagle flies toward the surface of the water, then stops flapping its wings and silently glides in for the kill, dipping its deadly talons into the water and snatching up its startled prey. This technique is not always successful as many fish wiggle free of the catch as they are precariously lifted into the air.
The Osprey also scans for fish by first flying above the water. It also flies down closer, but instead of snatching its catch from the surface, this feisty fisherman makes a sudden dive into the clear water. This allows the Osprey to adjust the positioning and take hold of the fish in its talons while sitting on the surface. The Osprey is able to stay buoyant due to its smaller size and heavy, waterproofing oils embedded in its feathers. When the fish is positioned to the Osprey’s satisfaction it takes flight with its catch secured in strong, sharp talons. It is also able to hang onto its slippery prey much easier due to the placement of a fourth toe. Osprey’s talons are turned all the way to the back giving two toes in front and two in back, whereas Bald Eagles grip with three in front and only one in back. The toes are also covered in spiny skin, which gives Ospreys an especially firm grip.
Though their fishing techniques differ, these two bird species share both hunting grounds, which is bound to lead to competition and conflict. Occasionally, the lucky outdoors enthusiast will catch a front row seat to an amazing aerial battle between Osprey and Eagle. Both fight tenaciously to dislodge the flopping fish from the talons of the other. Often the fish falls loose and back into the water, resulting in an amazing competition to recapture the prey, filled with daring dives and dramatic swoops, often turning on a dime, to see which bird will be the victor and reclaim the spoils.
The Bald Eagle is stronger and bigger than the Osprey, but the Osprey has speed and agility, making these epic battles hard to call one way or the other.
While you’re out fishing, swimming or boating in any of the endless Northern California water destinations, remember to look up to witness individual birds as they hunt, gliding close to the water. Eventually you will see an Osprey or an Eagle make their talented catch and just maybe you too can witness a hard-fought battle in the never ending saga of the Bald Eagle versus Osprey raptor rivalry.