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the web of life in southern Africa

Pandion haliaetus (Osprey) 

Visvalk [Afrikaans]; Visarend [Dutch]; Balbuzard pêcheur [French]; Fischadler [German]; Águia-pesqueira [Portuguese]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Tetrapoda (four-legged vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Reptilia (reptiles) > Romeriida > Diapsida > Archosauromorpha > Archosauria > Dinosauria (dinosaurs) > Saurischia > Theropoda (bipedal predatory dinosaurs) > Coelurosauria > Maniraptora > Aves (birds) > Order: Falconiformes > Family: Pandionidae

The Osprey is sometimes placed in the family Accipitridae where it is placed in its own subfamily that is the sister group to all the other members of the Accipitridae. Alternatively, it can be placed in its own family Pandionidae, sister family to the Accipitridae, which is the classification followed here.

Pandion haliaetus (Osprey)   

Osprey, West Coast Fossil Park. [photo Trevor Hardaker ©]


Distribution and habitat

One of the most widespread birds of prey, it occurs on every continent except Antarctica; in Africa it is partly resident in the tropics but is a non-breeding visitor pretty much everywhere else, including southern Africa. Here it is generally uncommon and localised across much of the region, excluding the arid interior, generally preferring sea shores, estuaries and lagoons along the coast. Inland it is restricted to lakes, large rivers and man-made impoundments, such as dams.

Distribution of Osprey in southern Africa, based on statistical smoothing of the records from first SA Bird Atlas Project (© Animal Demography unit, University of Cape Town; smoothing by Birgit Erni and Francesca Little). Colours range from dark blue (most common) through to yellow (least common). See here for the latest distribution from the SABAP2.  

Movements and migrations

Mainly a non-breeding migrant to southern Africa, arriving from October-December and leaving from March-May. However there are many records of individuals who have stayed in the region over winter and some may even be resident.


It almost exclusively eats fish, typically hunting by flying in circles over the water. Once it has spotted a fish it dives into the water feet first, with its wings held back, sometimes submerging itself completely to catch prey up to about a metre below the surface. It is more successful when the water is choppy than when it is calm, probably because prey can spot the Osprey more easily. If it catches a fish, it rises from the water with wings flapping hard to gain height, shivering and shaking itself dry before heading back to a favoured perch to feed. The following food items have been recorded in its diet:

  • Fish
    • Oreochromis mossambicus (Mozambique tilapia)
    • mullet (Mugilidae)
    • Lepomis macrochirus (Bluegill sunfish)
  • Other


  • There only four confirmed breeding records in southern Africa, so much of the following information is from Europe; it is a monogamous, territorial solitary nester.
  • In Europe the nest is built by both sexes, consisting of a large, tower-like platform of sticks and other woody material, up to 1.5 metres high and 1 metre wide. A cup is set into the top of the structure, lined with dry grass. It can be placed in a variety of sites; in southern Africa it was once found in a Sycamore fig (Ficus sycomorus).
  • Egg-laying season is in spring and summer.
  • It lays 1-4 eggs, which are incubated for about 35-43 days.
  • The chicks stay in the nest for roughly 50 days.


Not threatened, although its worldwide population is gradually decreasing. Its conservation status in southern Africa is uncertain, but it is not understood why it is so uncommon in the region.


  • Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG 2005. Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, VIIth ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town.