Birds & Birding

It’s Not Easy Being a Hatchling

Josie and Elbert have three hatchlings!

The stars of the Nature Conservancy’s Osprey Cam in the Gulf of Mexico, are the parents of a full nest. The best time to see them is during a feeding, when you can see three fuzzy brown heads pop up, wobbling like drunken sock puppets with long necks and sharp beaks. Just visible over the edge of the nest you might also catch sight of their small bodies and wings, covered in peach fuzz and a long way from flight-ready.

Josie & Elbert hatched their first chick on April 28, the second chick hatched a couple of days after and the third came along a few days after that. The staggered birth order helps to ensure that at least one chick (the oldest and largest) is likely to survive.

Like human parents of triplets, Josie and Elbert are constantly busy providing for their brood. Baby ospreys grow fast – in two short months they will be as big as their parents and getting ready to leave the nest. That growth requires food, and since we’re talking ospreys, that means Elbert will have his talons full catching enough fish to keep the chicks (and Josie!) well fed.

Have you ever wondered how chicks get enough water way up there in the nest? Osprey chicks get all the water that they need from the fish they eat. Even adult ospreys usually get enough water from their fishy diet – though they might need a supplemental drink on a hot day.

Taken on Tigertail Beach, Marco Island, Florida. Photo © Andy Morffew / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Elbert will be making many trips to the nest with fish – and Josie might pitch in too especially as the season progresses and the chicks get larger and hungrier. He will usually leave the fish with Josie, who will portion out the food. When food is plentiful, she will feed all the chicks. This year, so far, all the chicks have been seen eating. Elbert has proven in the past that he can provide for a large family – last year’s brood of three all fledged and left the nest.

We always hope that all chicks will survive to adulthood, but please keep in mind the possibility that some chicks may not survive. In times of food scarcity, starvation threatens and sometimes larger osprey chicks respond by taking sibling rivalry to its extreme – siblicide is another part of osprey biology that improves chances the oldest chick will survive even in tough times. As long as there is enough food to go around, the chicks are likely to live together without incident.

Threats can come from outside of the nest as well – predators like raccoons and other raptors sometimes eat osprey chicks. Josie and Elbert will watch for predators from the excellent vantage point their nest provides. They will do their best to protect the chicks until they are large enough to fend for themselves. Nonetheless, osprey chicks are vulnerable until they learn to fly. Tragedy can strike at any time as happened at a nest on Hog Island, Maine when an eagle snatched a large, nearly full-fledged chick from the nest.

The adult female osprey feeds her 5 week-old chick, on Tigertail Beach, Marco island, Florida. Photo © Andy Morffew / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Whatever happens in the nest this year, osprey cam is an opportunity to learn about the secret lives of these unique raptors. Over the next six to eight weeks, the hatchlings will eat an ungodly amount of fish, grow to adult size, and will slowly lose their downy fuzz as they grow the feathers that will enable them to fly.

Tune in regularly and keep your osprey questions coming!

Please consider making a donation to The Nature Conservancy in the Gulf of Mexico. Your support will help us create healthy habitats for creatures like osprey.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa Feldkamp is the senior coordinator for new science audiences. She loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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2 comments

  1. Great article! I would like to point out, however, that what appears as a “tragedy” for the ospreys is certainly a win for the eagle.