Unique Fish Hawks in the Sacramento Valley

By Luke Matthews

Osprey, commonly referred to as “fish hawks” or “sea hawk”, can be found year-round in the Sacramento Valley, particularly along the Sacramento and Feather Rivers. In fact, Northern California is one of the only places in the Western United States that hosts resident populations of Osprey. Many people associate these unique raptors with alpine lakes and are totally unaware that they can be found right here in the heart of rice country.

When compared to all other hawk species, Osprey stand out as being unique for a variety of reasons. First, there is only one species of Osprey and they are found on every continent expect Antarctica. This means that if your traveling and see an Osprey in Russia, South Africa, Brazil, or Florida they all belong to the same species. Second, is the Osprey diet, which consists of almost entirely fish. Most other hawks in North America hunt terrestrial species. Due to this highly specialized diet, Osprey are exclusively found in association with lakes and rivers. The third feature that separates these birds from all other hawks is the configuration of their toes. Osprey have a reversable outer toe which allows them to change the configuration of their feet from three toes in the front and one in the back to an even split with two toes front and back. The Osprey’s ability to move its toe into the 2-2 configuration helps them grip fish, which are a slippery prey item.

If you have never seen Osprey in the wild, I encourage you to take a drive up into the Sacramento Valley and look for these large white and brown birds. This time of year, they can be found feeding their young in nests build high-up on power poles, telephone poles, and open trees along the Sacramento and Feather Rivers in California.

Luke Matthews is the Wildlife Programs Manager for the California Rice Commission