The Poets’ Birds: Osprey

“Osprey” ~ John James Audubon

 

Oh, large, brown, thickly feathered creature
with a distinctive white head,
you, perched on the top branch
of a tree near the lake shore,
as soon as I guide this boat back to the dock
and walk up the grassy path to the house,
before I unzip my windbreaker
and lift the binoculars from around my neck,
before I wash the gasoline from my hands,
before I tell anyone I’m back,
and before I hang the ignition key on its nail,
or pour myself a drink—
I’m thinking a vodka soda with lemon—
I will look you up in my
illustrated guide to North American birds
and I promise I will learn what you are called.
                                                                   “Osprey” ~ Billy Collins

 

Comments are welcome. For more information on Collins, a former United States Poet Laureate, please click here.

104 thoughts on “The Poets’ Birds: Osprey

  1. A heartfelt appreciation of the raw, rare, magical beauty of the sea hawk with a princely title – ‘Osprey’ ! – Enjoyed that immensely – think mine’s a salty, speyside whiskey with a single block of ice!

    1. They’re here only seasonally, but for a good part of the year osprey perch on sailboat masts in the marinas where I work. I’m not so fond of cleaning up after them when they choose the mast of a boat I’m working on to enjoy their dinner, but otherwise? They’re a magnificent bird — with a quite unlikely, musical call. Cheers!

    1. It’s among my favorites. I suppose part of it’s the accessibility. You can’t help seeing osprey here in the fall and winter: fishing, perching, just hanging out.

      I love listening to them call to one another. I suppose they’re often mated pairs. One will be off fishing over the lake, while one stays on a mast, and you can hear their conversations go on for quite a long time. They call as they arrive in the area in the fall, too. Hearing the first osprey in autumn is thrilling.

    1. I don’t know how anyone who sees them could fail to be impressed. Of course, there are plenty of people who don’t see them, even when they’re close at hand. They’re certainly one of my favorites.

    1. Every now and again I get to see one flying with a fish in its talons. They have special pads on their feet to help them keep a grip on the fish, and they always face the fish forward, to reduce wind resistance. You’re right about the similarity in expression between the bird and the fish. I suspect their thoughts would be somewhat different.

    1. Given the roots of the word, it occurred to me that those Europeans had to know the bird. I found that its distribution is worldwide, and has been for millenia, so of course they did. It’s one of those obvious facts that isn’t so obvious until it’s pointed out.

      I must say, I never expected etymology to affirm the truth of a 1960s novelty song: that, (in a manner of speaking) the bird is the word.

    1. Billy Collins is a favorite poet, and as for Audubon: who doesn’t love his work? I’m glad they appealed. One of the reasons I enjoyed pairing the painting and poem is for the contrast between the poet, who doesn’t even know the bird’s name, and Audubon, who knew every sinew and bone.

  2. Makes me think of James Thurber’s poem, which I cannot at the moment recall, about the Audubon I oughtabeen. But seriously, they are handsome birds, and any bird that can snatch a fish out of the water is downright amazing.

    1. When I first saw them, I thought they were diving into the water, but, no: they go feet-first, to pluck the fish from the water. I read that they sight along their talons, which only adds to the amazement.

      Is this what you were thinking of? It’s only an excerpt from a longer poem, but it made me laugh.

      “You can rush to consult your Nature guide
      And inspect the gallery inside,
      But a bird in the open never looks
      Like its picture in the birdie books-
      Or if it once did, it has changed its plumage,
      And plunges you back into ignorant gloomage.
      That is why I sit here growing old by inches,
      Watching a clock instead of finches,
      But I sometimes visualize in my gin
      The Audubon that I audubin.”

        1. That’s absolutely wonderful. I’d never read the poem; I didn’t know that “hern” is an old word for heron; I didn’t know that bicker has completely changed its meaning. The meter of the poem’s a bit brooklike, and wonderful fun to read aloud. I do know the difference between a coot and moorhen, and after some thought, have decided that coots may be the quintessential Thurber bird. Thanks for the links.

  3. When my daughter was 10 she came home from her school art class with an ink drawing of a large bird with a fish in its claws. I was very impressed with the way she had copied an original print or painting. I framed the drawing and hung it where I could see it daily. But, not until this post, had it ever occurred to me that the bird she drew was an osprey. I am a slow learner. It has taken me 23 years to work that out! Billy Collins might be amused.

    1. Mr. Collins probably would mix another vodka soda with lemon, and toast your flash of sudden insight. I have those moments every now and then, and often end up wondering, “How could I have missed that?”

      This did occur to me: the osprey isn’t a New Zealand bird, so it makes sense that you might not be so quick to recognize it. I’m not sure if you were in NZ all those years, but from what I see on the birding sites, the closest thing to the osprey in NZ might be the white-bellied sea eagle, which is reported to come over from Australia now and then. When I searched New Zealand Birds Online for osprey, I didn’t get any returns at all. I suspect they may be missing from other islands, too. You’re part of what puts the “nearly” in the phrase that says ospreys are “nearly cosmopolitan.”

        1. It certainly uses the same technique to fish for its dinner. I’d say its talons are even more impressive than the osprey’s — I suppose our bald eagle’s are, too, although I’ve never compared them.

            1. I do know them, although our class racing is focused more on Ensigns, J-boats, Lasers, and Optimist Dinghies. Ospreys seem to be favored in other areas. On the other hand, when I saw this gem, and the price it went for, I started drooling. It’s a darned good thing it sold years ago. I wouldn’t/couldn’t have purchased it, but it would have occasioned a struggle!

            1. I am not very familiar with her work, but I was in a waiting room about 2 weeks ago and saw her memoir on a shelf. I started to read it and decided it was too good to leave in the waiting room. Not done, I know…..but on reflection it probably should be done more often. Waiting rooms need better turn over in their literature. They would be a great place for a little libraries, or book exchanges. I plan to return the book and perhaps add some new stock to said waiting room.

            2. I used to do that with magazines when I was spending a lot of time in doctors’ offices with my mother. We’d clip off the address labels and take in stacks of her recipe and craft magazines, and my old New Yorkers and such. There’s no reason people have to be limited to 1998 golf magazines and celebrity magazines.

              And, yes: I’ve done it, too. I once walked out with a copy of “Missouri Wildlife.” How that landed in the office, I don’t know, but it was quite interesting. I traded some old Texas Monthly issues for it.

            3. What a fine idea. You hadn’t mentioned it, but I like it very much. Reading through the biographies of the poets, I was much taken with Rob Hack. I understand someone who works as a handyman so he can buy second-hand poetry books and petrol!

  4. One spring morning, shortly after ice breakup and a bit before sunrise, as I walked across the Cedar River bridge, I spotted a big carp dancing on its tail in the middle of county road.

    I looked around – there were no fisherman’s cars parked on the road, nor any recent sign of traffic.

    I chalked it up to just one of those things that happens around here.

    Further on, a big eagle flapped out of a ditch and flew slowly away. He or she, I couldn’t tell which, had been feeding on a roadkill deer.

    I could just imagine, after snatching the fish out of the shallows, the eagle spotted the roadkill. “Hell, this ain’t Friday,” it thought and dropped the fish.

    I wonder what Billy Collins would make of that.

    1. He’d make something of it, I’m sure — although I’m not sure his poem would be as good as a little story titled, for example, “My Roadkill.”

      Every now and then I’ll find a fish on the dock. Sometimes they’re moving fast, trying to escape a predator, and a poorly-aimed jump lands them on concrete. But occasionally they’re in a spot that’s a little too far from water for that to be the reason, and I wonder if they haven’t been dropped.

      Your country-road carp is a perfect example of the kinds of things that happen so quickly it’s hard to believe we actually see them. I was driving down a gravel road in Kansas when a hawk flew in front of me with what had to be at least a four-foot snake dangling from its talons. I wished I could have seen it again, but nature doesn’t provide a rewind button.

          1. That is a great term. I’ve never seen birds trying to steal an osprey’s catch, but there’s a good bit of kleptoparasitism among other species. The least effective are the seagulls who hang around the pelicans, trying to pull a fish away before it gets tucked away into the pelican’s pouch. The noisiest is seagull on seagull, and the most audacious is great blue heron on fisherman.

            1. First I have to clear the seagulls and “Mine! Mine! Mine” out of my head (lol!) but wow, things sure are different down your way! Must be because you’re a fishing port that there’s a greater population density (and so much more competition?) ‘Cause picturing a Great Blue hitting on a fisherman is a completely bizarre thought. They are quite a shy bird in these parts and tend to just fly away if people come too close. Although we have a healthy population of Osprey up here near Rice Lake, and I do get to see one pair in particular, every year – roadside on their utility pole platform nest – I’m not close enough, often enough to have your sort of interaction (which sounds absolutely wonderful, by the way: )
              Your mention of seeing random fish here and there brought to mind the wiki-article with klepto-parasitism reference… I’d come across it some time ago (during another discussion about Osprey; )

          2. I had to jump back up to find a reply button.

            The great flocks of egrets, herons, ibis, and so on that are around are due mostly to the fact that we’re a combination of coastal plain, marsh, wetlands, and bayous. Beyond that, there are nature preserves, wildlife refuges, and so on up and down the coast. But we have a lot of fishermen, too — both commercial and recreational — and plenty of the birds have figured out the meaning of “soft touch.”

            Here’s a photo of a great blue down in the surf at the west end of Galveston Island. He was only a few feet from a fisherman when I took the photo, and he was catching the fish the guys were flipping to him while they still were in the air. Sometimes he’d miss, but the fish still didn’t have a chance.

            Here’s another bird fact I didn’t know until recently: grackles will eat bait fish. I watched a grackel steal a glass minnow from a seagull a few days ago, and promptly down it. Klepto!

            1. Well now, THAT would explain why the Heron associate fishermen with a free lunch, wouldn’t it? ):
              Yes, while I love it when the ‘Black Birds’ (Red-Winged, Starling and Grackles) return to signal Spring, they are seen rather often being chased by PO’ed avian parents after attempting an egg snatch… Survival of the fittest(greediest; )

    1. Don’t you have an Audubon print over your mantle? Or in the entryway? I’m sure I remember seeing one somewhere in your new house. His work is splendid, and his life was equally interesting.

  5. They are greased lightning. Heard someone say that once. Love the down-home sound of that, and it’s so descriptive of osprey’s flight. And, I love the tension in the poem of a modern being called by another species to pay attention.

    1. I watch them at work, circling high over the lake, and always marvel at both their vision and their ability to take into account the movement of the fish. It’s one thing to dive on a stationary object, but something entirely different to snatch up a moving object.

      That call to pay attention is constant. Hearing it is the trick. I mentioned up above another tension in the poem that appeals to me: the contrast between the man who doesn’t know the creature’s name, and the artist who clearly knows the creature so well he can create even the expression in its eye.

  6. Ah the lovely Osprey – I think of them as the Piscean Bird Bandit (love their mask: ) Fairly certain that you and I have spoken of the little darlings before? And that would be little in comparison to the Bald or Golden (fish-stealing): Eagles…

    1. Interesting that you think of them as a bandit. That never had crossed my mind. I think of them as handsome and dignified, and great conversationalists. Of course, I listen to them on a daily basis when they’re in the area and I’m at work. There are usually several pair around, with one perched on a mast and one out hunting, or with both taking their ease and just keeping in touch through their calls.

      The eagle we see most often isn’t an eagle at all, but the crested caracara, or “Mexican eagle.” I may have seen one here in Galveston County, but generally I have to go across the bay or one county down the coast to see them. The farther south and west you go, the more there are, which makes sense, since south and west takes you toward Mexico. The caracara is about the size of the osprey, or a little larger. It’s equally impressive.

      1. No, no; I simply meant it as a term of endearment; as in, they remind me of ‘cute little bandits’ with their dark feathered masks, rather than actually being thieves…
        I wish I spent more time near the two large bodies of water (where they’re most likely to be seen here: ) rather than being land-locked in the middle and migration being the slim and only chance to see them overhead.
        But, speaking of fish-eating raptors flying overhead… Although there are many hawkish types who like to soar on the thermals over the Moraine, we actually saw a Bald Eagle here. Once. And of course, by the time we realised what we’d glimpsed, it was long gone. But still quite a amazing event!
        I can definitely see why you compare these two species: http://www.texasescapes.com/FEATURES/Gonzales_-_Caracara/feature_caracara.htm

        1. Oh — I understood that you were talking more of appearance than behavior. It’s the same with raccoons. Their little masks give them that bandit look: although their behavior certainly is more thief-like, and can be the stuff of great stories and great frustration. I have raccoon stories galore, including the night one boarded our sailboat and stole all the Pepperidge Farm cookies. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but — the cookies?

          1. Apparently they share your taste in goodies? ; )
            But *sigh* yes, sadly raccoons are another opportunistic species that has settled in quite comfortably with slovenly Man and, as a result, gotten totally out of control. Such a large story. I believe you were also party to this conversation on Bill’s post only a few days back?

    1. Every time I see one dive, I ponder how they can see the fish from such heights, and calculate where they need to be to catch it as it swims. It’s a wonder, to be sure.

      We had good rain last night, and there actually were flash flood warnings out for NW Houston. There’s more rain to the north, so I’m going to scoot out and see what I can get done before it arrives. We need the rain, so I’ll not complain too much — but maybe just a little.

  7. Yikes, just look at those talons!! That osprey means business when he scoops up dinner, doesn’t he? I know that of which the poet speaks, too. Sadly, my dad (who seemed to know all about flora and fauna — and even bugs!) is no longer here for me to ask. Thank goodness for Google, ha!

    1. I’ve learned more about osprey talons in the past two days than I imagined possible. Not only do they have special pads that help them grip the fish, there are specialized scales on them, too. It probably is impossible to know how many fish escape an osprey, but I’d say not many.

      Google’s good, but there are other sites that are better. BugGuide is a great one. The advantage is that you can post a photo of your little mystery, and people who actually know what they’re talking about will show up to help you ID it. There are other sites, too — including Facebook groups, but since I’m not willing to join Facebook, that doesn’t help me much. BAMONA (Butterflies and Moths of North America) is another great site, where you can submit photos for an ID, or just browse their pages.

      1. Such wonderful info, Linda — thank you! I, too, refuse to join Facebook. One has only 24 hours in a day, and one can’t do everything! BugGuide sounds perfect — I’m hopping over to check it out.

  8. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an osprey in the flesh. Or the feather, as the case may be. Those could be some pretty scary birds if you were on the wrong end of them!

    1. The good news is, they really do prefer fish, so you’re safe in the lake! I wondered if they make it up to Michigan, and it seems they do. On the other hand, they seem to be scarce enough up there that the sites dedicated to them are most about about reporting sightings and tracking. It seems there’s some nesting in the southern part of the state, but otherwise they’re not so common. It’s not your lack of observational skills — it’s a lack of osprey!

    1. Doesn’t it, though? I used to have a teacher who (unfortunately) was given to asking us to paraphrase poems. If I were to paraphrase this one, I think it would be, “What the heck?”

  9. I grow increasingly fond of birds (and Audubon’s renditions of them) with each passing year. The osprey is a favorite from the Golden Isles of Georgia, on one of whose islands my parents now live. Ospreys connote supreme confidence to me; they soar haughtily above then swoop effortlessly and with complete assurance that they will nail their prey. Awesome creatures indeed. And I loved the poem!

    1. Herons often miss, and the way they shake themselves and fluff their feathers or stalk around after a miss always looks like embarassment to me. But I’ve never seen that in the osprey.

      I’m going to have to start watching more closely, to see if they ever dive but come up fishless. They certainly must, but you wouldn’t know it by their behavior. Maybe they live by an avian version of the old human adage: if you act like you know what you’re doing, people will believe that you do.

    1. They are such elegant birds. I did a quick search in your local papers, and found a few articles like this one. They seem to be more common down around San Diego. I hope the efforts at repopulating work. I’d love for you to be able to see one!

  10. I saw an Osprey in the pecan orchard slough this spring. It was a brief encounter, but I felt amazing just being in it’s presence. Lovely poetry… worth visiting again and again.

    1. Billy Collins is a fine poet. He has a nice, understated way of saying interesting things, and a real sensitivity to nature. I’m so glad you saw an osprey in your slough. You have such a rich variety of wildlife there. Of course, you care for the land and create an environment they’d find congenial, so it makes perfect sense that they’d be around. Keep an eye out in the fall, during the migration, and you might see more.

  11. Altogether a fascinating bird reflected again in that magnificent painting and again in the poem of a first time observer expressing utter amazement. Kudos shoreacres!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the pairing, Dor. I enjoy finding avian poetry and images that work well together — I think this might be the sixth or seventh in my “poets’ birds” series. I remember posting about the sandhill crane, waxwings, songbirds, and egrets. Such fun!

  12. The osprey is a real beauty and the poem was nice to read. I’ve only seen in a osprey when they happen to be here in the winter around the lake. Not sure if any might breed somewhere in Texas. We have some bald eagles now for the past 10 years or more. They nest at the lake. The osprey and eagle remind me of each other since they both prey on fish but the eagle will take other prey I think. I hope I’m not putting incorrect information here. I don’t have my bird books handy and I’m rather rusty now since I’m no longer an active birder. Now I “bird” by calls and songs but my birding is limited to my yard or when I’ driving on a country road.

    1. Like you, I see them only in winter. In fact, even though there are sightings in far SE Texas throughout the year, they aren’t common. The closest year-round residents are in Louisiana.

      You’re exactly right about the different diets. I knew osprey eat fish almost exclusively, but I was sure the eagles’ diet is more varied. When I double-checked, I found this great page from the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory in Lake Jackson that has a lot of interesting information, including a list of things eagles eat: fish, both live and dead, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and crabs.

      I heard something in the trees last weekend that sounded familiar, but it took me forever to find them. When I did? That chirping and pretty singing was coming from a pair of tiny wrens.

  13. Love the poem – such a nice conversational style, yet still poetry. I also relate to the subject, although maybe not for the reason he means (excited to look up a new bird) – if I don’t do it right away, I won’t remember!

    1. You’re lucky if you can remember after one look-up. I’m better with birds, but it can take several (many) times to fix a flower’s name in my mind. If it’s one of the yellow ones, it doesn’t take much for terminal confusion to set in — there are so many, and not everything is in a book!

      Collins is one of those poets I can be divided about. There are plenty of his poems that just don’t appeal. But many do, and among those are some of my favorites of all time. You’re right about his conversational style. There’s a simplicity and straightforwardness I like.

  14. That is a beautiful poem. I remember these magnificent birds from back east. We do have them here in Oregon, but I have seen only a few in the almost 14 years we have been here.

    1. I learned something very interesting about them today, that might affect how many or few you see. It seems they prefer to fish shallow waters. Since they access only about the top three feet of water, they’re restricted to surface-schooling fish and those in shallows. That explains why I see so many — we’re surrounded by estuaries, shallow bays, bayous and marshes. Deep lakes and seacoasts probably wouldn’t be so congenial.

      I’m happy you enjoyed the poem. It’s titled “osprey,” but it’s really about the human, and our tendency to look past so much that surrounds us.

  15. I think it was a ‘Global Big Day’ when I asked non-birding friend to help count the birds on the river by Casa Loca. He was counting frigates, I think, and I was counting egrets, and an osprey seemed to fall out of the clouds, straight to the water in a dramatic splash, pause, then away it flew with a fish in its talons! My not-so-birdy friend instantly converted! “Did you see that?” he asked, “Did you get a picture?”
    The picture, of course, confirmed it was an osprey!

    That’s a great poem! Thanks for sharing it!

    1. Once someone’s seen an osprey dive, there’s no mistaking it in the future. There’s a high bridge I cross every day, and the top of the bridge is about at the level where ospreys like to hang out and watch for fish. Every now and again, the timing’s right, and they’ll dive for the water when I’m there to see it from the top of the dive. It’s quite a sight.

      I really like the poem, and I like that he heads for his book to make the identification. I couldn’t find the publication date for the poem, but I suspect it was pre-app.

      In the process of trying to date the poem, I found another interesting book titled Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds. The editor is Billy Collins, and the artwork is done by David Allen Sibley. What a treasure that must be. I had to laugh — it’s my little “The Poet’s Birds” series all grown up and gone fancy! You can see the book here. It makes me think that Collins must be more of a birder than I realized.

      1. Bright Wings is surely a beautiful book to hold in one’s hands. Thanks for that link.

        Your comment , ” I couldn’t find the publication date for the poem, but I suspect it was pre-app.” made me pause regarding ‘pre-app.’ Um, Miss Old Fashioned here doesn’t have an app op, and suddenly she’s wondering if it’s an option for windows or —-

        1. You know, I had no apps in my life until I got my iPad. Now, I have a couple of weather apps I’ve added, along with my gmail, and… um… I think that’s it. I know there are birding apps, and iNaturalist, and every sort of ID site available as apps, but I just haven’t made the move yet. I’d much rather take out my guidebook, although I am starting to use the iPad more often when I’m out and about.

          Sometimes it’s a problem, though, because I’m in places where I can’t get an internet connection.
          You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?

          1. Ha! The internet here in Jama ‘drops’ a lot… one crazy thing with computer programs, like ‘troubleshooting’ it will often say, ‘You must be connected to the internet.’

            Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr….
            What about when you’re half an hour away from a connection?!

            1. I don’t have a smart phone, and am happy enough without it. I might have to put BugGuide and a plant ID app on the ipad, though. Off to dreamland I go — you don’t need an app for dreams!

    1. Isn’t he funny? I suspect all of us recognize ourselves in that moment. Good intentions abound, as do the difficulties of identification. I did feel a little better the day a friend told me the birder’s equivalent of our “darned yellow composites” is the “little brown bird” — all of those sparrows and such that aren’t nearly so easy to identify as a robin or blue jay or cardinal.

  16. Unfortunately, the only ospreys we get in the skies around here are not of the feathered variety, and I couldn’t imagine anyone writing a poem about them. I do know about buying many (too many) bird books to look up new birds. The fact that there IS a new bird visiting (whatever it is, and whenever it arrives) fills my heart with joy.

    1. Ah — I believe I know the “breed” of osprey that hovers around you. They certainly aren’t as appealing, although I suppose they might figure in a different sort of poem.

      Speaking of new birds, I happened upon some wood storks yesterday. They were nearly beyond the reach of my camera lens, but it was a joy to see them. Best of all were the moorhen babies. I’ve never seen them before, and they’re just as cute as ducklings. The world’s filled with treasure — no question about that.

      1. We used to have a moorhen that visited regularly. We have a pond in our garden (yard) and it would usually first appear beneath some of the overhanging branches of plants at the back, obviously thinking it couldn’t be seen. Then it began coming to the patio to eat – bread! We only throw out bread as a last resort, usually, instead the birds that visit us get seed, suet and mealworms. But this moorhen and, later, a semi-tame crow, were absolutely crazy about bread! I’d love to have seen moorhen babies.

        1. There once was a boat-tailed grackel that would come aboard our boat for its breakfast. It would hop right down the companionway into the salon, and we’d feed it bread, too.

          I went through my moorhen and chicks photos, and most of them aren’t so very good. The birds were too far away for my lens. But I do have a couple that show the mother and a couple of the chicks. I’ll post those one of these days.

    1. I had no idea they’d gone extinct in the British Isles, or that they’ve been successfully re-introduced. It’s really quite a story — there’s a short Wiki page here. Wouldn’t it be something to raise one of those chicks!

    1. I hope you do, someday. They’re so common here, it’s hard for me to imagine that people haven’t seen them. But of course that’s the case. We all have something we long to see — a good reason to keep looking!

  17. This one I don’t need to look up my bird book, for there’s an Osprey nest not too far from the Pond and I see them sometimes. I once got a photo of the picture you have here, but probably a mile away, too small to see. But when I enlarge it on my laptop, I could see the fish the Osprey had in its claws.

    1. I remember you mentioning the osprey. I’m so glad that you have them around. They’re magnificent birds, and in many ways better subjects for photography than eagles and other raptors. At least around here, they tend to stay lower while they fly, and will circle while choosing an entree from the buffet. It’s good that you’ve been able to get some photos of them. Maybe this year will be the year for the “big one.”

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