Many bird species have adapted specialized hunting techniques to catch fish in lakes, rivers and oceans. Here are 5 birds well-known for plunge diving to snatch up aquatic prey.

1. Osprey

Osprey Eats fish

The osprey (Pandion haliaetus) is a large raptor found worldwide near bodies of water. It has a wingspan reaching up to 6 feet across. Ospreys are specially equipped to catch fish, with reversible outer toes, closable nostrils to keep out water, and backwards facing scales on their feet to help grip slippery fish.

These birds use their excellent eyesight to spot fish swimming near the surface. Then they perform a steep plunge dive, often completely submerging their bodies. Ospreys have a diet consisting almost solely of fish.

“The osprey is so well designed for its special mode of life that it is one of the most efficient and successful of fishing birds.” – Roger Tory Peterson, ornithologist

2. Pelican

Pelicans Eating fish

Pelicans are very large water birds with characteristic throat pouches. The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) found in coastal areas plunges from heights of up to 60 feet to snatch fish with its bill. Air sacs under its skin cushion the impact as it hits the water. Pelicans can catch multiple fish in one dive by expanding their throat pouch.

The white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) has similar fishing behavior but usually dives from lower heights of around 20 feet. It chiefly fishes in groups, herding fish into compact areas to make hunting easier.

3. Gannet

Gannet eating fish

The Northern gannet (Morus bassanus) breeds in huge colonies on rocky cliffs along the North Atlantic coasts. It is the largest seabird in the North Atlantic with a 6 foot wingspan.

Gannets have barrel-shaped bodies and long pointed wings ideal for diving underwater at high speeds. They spot fish up to 130 feet below the surface then plunge steeply into the sea. Air sacs in their face and chest help cushion the impact. They catch prey up to 4 feet deep and swallow it before resurfacing.

4. Kingfisher

Gannet birds

Though much smaller than the previous birds, kingfishers also specialize in diving for fish. The belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) found throughout North America aggressively hunts fish in rivers, lakes and estuaries. With eyes adapted for clear underwater vision, kingfishers perch until spotting prey close to the surface. They then plunge headfirst into the water, seizing small fish in their thick bills. Their ragged, shaggy crests may help protect their eyes when hitting the water.

5. Tern

Terns eating fish
common terns

Terns are slender, graceful seabirds related to gulls. Several tern species like the common tern (Sterna hirundo) and Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) readily plunge dive for small fish. They dive from heights of 15 to 40 feet depending on conditions and target prey. Terns have sleek, aerodynamic bodies and long pointed wings and tail that allow swift dives. Their diet consists mostly of small fish caught near the ocean’s surface.


How do these birds avoid injury when diving at high speeds?

  • Specialized adaptations like air sacs and cushioning plumage help reduce risk of injury. The shape of their skulls and relatively small brains also protect their heads when hitting water.

How deep can plunge diving birds go underwater?

  • Most plunge at shallow depths less than 10 feet to catch near-surface fish. However gannets can dive up to several dozen feet to pursue prey.

Do these birds ever miss catching fish when plunge diving?

  • Yes, there is still a degree of error and uncertainty when plunge diving. It is difficult to estimate distances and movement of prey underwater. Even highly specialized birds like ospreys or gannets still come up empty from a dive on occasion.

By adopting various plunge diving techniques, these remarkable birds are able to thrive around waterways and successfully catch fish, even in the marine environments of oceans and estuaries. Their adaptations allow them to secure enough nourishment while avoiding competition from other terrestrial predators. Watching their steep dives can be an impressive sight.

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Birds are incredible creatures, and many species have incredible skills for finding and catching their food. Some birds take to water to catch their prey and here are five birds that plunge into the depths to catch their meal.

First, the Great Cormorant is a large, migratory species found around the world. This fish-eating bird dives heavily into water for prey and can stay underwater for up to 80 seconds, and dive to depths of 13 feet. The Great Cormorant is an excellent hunter, with expert swimming and diving skills.

Another skillful hunter is the Darter, also known as the Anhinga. This water-loving bird mostly lives in warmer areas and dives to depths of 8 feet to catch fish. The Darter flies with its wings held back to look straight like a spear before quickly diving head first into the water.

The Kingfisher is a great example of a bird that plunges into rivers and streams to capture its prey. The Kingfisher dives exceptionally fast (55 mph) with its short, pointed beak, often hitting the fish before it can react. Kingfishers also practice shallow dives and hovering techniques to spot their prey.

The Pied Kingfisher is another fisher bird that dives spectacularly close to the surface for small prey, such as crustaceans, insects, and small fish. This species can be found in the tropics and subtropics of Africa, Asia, and Southern Europe.

Finally, the Gannet is a seabird species found on temperate coasts, able to dive more than 49 feet deep in search for fish. The Gannet does multiple dives for its target; it can dive up to 156 times in a row in pursuit of its prey.

All these birds rely on their impressive swimming and diving skills to catch their meal. Ornithologists and birders find it amazing to watch birds of prey diving into the depths of a body of water, creating an incredible spectacle in the sky.
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