Taxonomy and systematics
The osprey was one of the many species described by Carl Linnaeus in his 18th-century work, Systema Naturae, and named as Falco haliaeetus. The genus, Pandion, is the sole member of the family Pandionidae, and used to contain only one species, the osprey (P. haliaetus). The genus Pandion was described by the French zoologist Marie Jules César Savigny in 1809.
Most taxonomic authorities consider the species cosmopolitan and conspecific. A few authorities split the osprey into two species, the western osprey and the eastern osprey.
The osprey differs in several respects from other diurnal birds of prey. Its toes are of equal length, its tarsi are reticulate, and its talons are rounded, rather than grooved. The osprey and owls are the only raptors whose outer toe is reversible, allowing them to grasp their prey with two toes in front and two behind. This is particularly helpful when they grab slippery fish. It has always presented something of a riddle to taxonomists, but here it is treated as the sole living member of the family Pandionidae, and the family listed in its traditional place as part of the order Falconiformes.
Other schemes place it alongside the hawks and eagles in the family Accipitridae—which itself can be regarded as making up the bulk of the order Accipitriformes or else be lumped with the Falconidae into Falconiformes. The Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy has placed it together with the other diurnal raptors in a greatly enlarged Ciconiiformes, but this results in an unnatural paraphyletic classification.
Australasian subspecies is the most distinctive
Californian bird with scraps of fish on its beak
The osprey is unusual in that it is a single living species that occurs nearly worldwide. Even the few subspecies are not unequivocally separable. There are four generally recognised subspecies, although differences are small, and ITIS lists only the first two.
To date there have been two extinct species named from the fossil record.
Pandion homalopteron was named by
Stuart L. Warter in 1976 from fossils of Middle Miocene, Barstovian age, found in marine deposits in the southern part of California. The second named species
Pandion lovensis, was described in 1985 by
Jonathan J. Becker from fossils found in Florida and dating to the latest Clarendonian and possibly representing a separate lineage from that of P. homalopteron and P. haliaetus. A number of claw fossils have been recovered from Pliocene and Pleistocene sediments in Florida and South Carolina.
The oldest recognized family Pandionidae fossils have been recovered from the Oligocene age Jebel Qatrani Formation, of Faiyum, Egypt. However they are not complete enough to assign to a specific genus. Another Pandionidae claw fossil was recovered from Early Oligocene deposits in the Mainz basin, Germany, and was described in 2006 by Gerald Mayr.
The genus name Pandion derives from the mythical Greek king of Athens and grandfather of Theseus, Pandion II. Although Pandion II was not used to name a bird of prey, Nisus, a king of Megara, was used for the genus. The species name haliaetus comes from Ancient Greek haliaietos ἁλιάετος from hali- ἁλι-, "sea-" and aetos άετος, "eagle".
The origins of osprey are obscure; the word itself was first recorded around 1460, derived via the Anglo-French ospriet and the Medieval Latin avis prede "bird of prey," from the Latin avis praedæ though the Oxford English Dictionary notes a connection with the Latin ossifraga or "bone breaker" of Pliny the Elder. However, this term referred to the Lämmergeier.