Osprey calls: Types and Meaning

Ospreys give a variety of call types that often have specific meanings. Ornithologists Bretagnolle and Thibault (1993) conducted a field study where they recorded Osprey voices and interpreted their most likely meaning based on the associated circumstances and behavior. This article is based on their findings. 

osprey call types meaning

Why do Ospreys call, chirp, and whistle?

Ospreys give calls, chirps, and whistles mainly as a means to communicate with a mate, rival ospreys, and to warn them about the presence of threats. 

The majority of Osprey’s vocalizations are motivated by interactions between the mated male and female. As the young grow older after egg hatching, the parents communicate increasingly with them. 

Throughout the breeding season, certain interactions may be repeated more often while others decrease in frequency or disappear. Consequently, call types associated with such interactions are given with more or less frequency accordingly.

Do male and female Ospreys make the same calls?

Male and female ospreys give similar calls and screeches, except for a few types of vocalizations that are given by the female only.

Most Osprey vocalizations are accompanied by a visual body posture or display. Such visual displays are often subtle and difficult to notice from a distance.

Ospreys can be rather loud and vocal

The reason why folks living near nesting Ospreys think that they are very loud and vocal is that most Ospreys in North America are here to breed and are constantly interacting during the breeding period. 

Ospreys have contact, warning, and alarm calls to keep in touch with each other. Typically, the mated pair vocalizes when they meet again after separating for some time, when the male arrives at the nest, when the male is perched in a tree near the nest, when an intruder flies by the nest, just to give a few examples. 

They are basically talking with each other as they raise a family and protect their nest and nestling from predators.

Types and meaning of Osprey calls

Osprey biologists Bretagnolle and Thibault (1993) distinguish 5 types of calls and assign meaning to them as follows: 

Alarm Calls

Alarm Calls consist of short, clear whistles that fall in pitch. These calls are given by the male and female in the nest, while perched near the nest, and also in flight. Alarm calls are often preceded by an alarm posture by the calling bird. 

Alarm calls are given when a potential predator (non-Osprey) or disturbance (boat, human, vehicle) approaches the nest. 

The frequency and intensity of alarm calls depend on the type and proximity of what Ospreys perceive as potential predators. The closer the potential threat gets to the nest the louder the calls get. These calls can turn into loud screeches.

This type of call is more often given by breeding birds. However, Ospreys on migration also give alarm calls when approached by other ospreys while on their perches. 

Alarm calls by an excited bird perched in a nest.
Bird on nest reacting to the presence of another Osprey.

Solicitation calls (food-begging calls) 

The solicitation calls consist of a series of rapid short call notes given only by the female mostly in the presence of a male. Solicitation calls are the same as food-begging calls, which are one of the types of calls most frequently heard during the breeding season.


The presence of a male elicits these calls, which can vary in pace and intensity according to the distance between the male and the female, and whether the male has a fish or not. 

Females will also make solicitation calls when the male is perched in a nearby tree. Calls in these circumstances may not be intended to beg for food and their purpose and meaning are unclear. 

osprey in wintering grounds
Typical solicitation calls.

Guard Calls

Guard calls consist of a series of high pitch calls interspersed with screeches. These calls are given by both males and females in rather specific situations.

Guard calls are given when an Osprey that is considered an intruder flies near the nest or perches in a nearby tree. Ospreys do not react to known adjacent nesting neighbors but appear to recognize a bird that does now belong in the area.

Male and female Ospreys give guard calls as an anticipation signal that may lead to a chase of the intruding birds or a direct fight. If given by the male it means the protection of the female and the nest. If given by the female it means the protection of the eggs or young ospreys.

The meaning of Osprey guard calls can be confusing at times as both birds also give it apparently just to communicate when no intruder is within sight.

The typical guard calls. This bird is vocalizing as an intruder flies by.

Screaming

Screaming calls are long screeching whistles given exclusively during the sky-dance courtship displays that male ospreys perform during the initiation of the breeding season.

Osprey gives screaming calls as it performs the sky-dance display.

Excited Calls

Excited calls are basically the same calls as Guard calls but vary in pitch and intensity according to the proximity and nature of the threat.

Ospreys share the nesting and foraging habitat with bald eagles but Ospreys consider Bald Eagles potential predators. Upon detecting a bald eagle near the nest, the male and female start giving guard calls that turn into excited calls if the eagles get too close to the nest.

Under circumstances of close imminent threat guard, calls can sound like screams.

This Osprey gave these calls after attacking a bald eagle that approached the Osprey nest. These calls sound like screaming calls given when the bird is excited.

Solicitation calls given by the female (sitting on the eggs) as the male approaches the nest with a fish. Notice how her calls change and become almost a continuous screech as the male is about to land on the nest.

Why do Ospreys circle in the sky as they make screeching calls

Osprey circling in the sky making screeching calls are performing a courtship display known as sky-dance. This display consists of a male performing and undulating, U-shaped flight pattern at al altitude of approximately 900 feet. The bird often carries a fish or a piece of nesting material in its dangling legs as it screeches persistently often for long periods of time. 

Because most breeding males perform the sky-dance display at the beginning of the breeding season and less frequently during the entire length of the breeding season, this call type attracts the attention of many observers who notice the screaming calls and see the Osprey performing a flight that looks different to most observers.

Final Remarks

The reason why Ospreys are loud and vocal during the breeding season is that they are involved in activities that demand continuous communication between members of the breeding pair. They have a short window in which to fit building a nest, laying eggs, and raising the young.

Call types can normally be assigned a type. However, calls can overlap in quality and intensity according to the circumstances in which calls are given. For instance, normal guard calls can turn into screeches if the threat is imminent.

Certain call types are repeated more often than others. The screaming calls given during the sky-dance and solicitation calls are the most frequently heard Osprey call types.

References:

  • Bretagnolle, V. and Thibault, J. C., 1993. Communication and Behavior in Breeding Ospreys (Pandion heliaetus: Description and Relationship of Signals to Life History. The Auk 110(4):736-751, 1993.