As millions of people around the world tune in for the 49th annual NFL Super Bowl game, we can't help but put a bit of Earth Touch spin on the big event ... especially since one of the teams is sporting a mascot from the natural world: the Seattle Seahawks!

Say what?

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Yes, the seahawk is a real bird! Better known as the osprey (Pandion haliaetus), the seahawk is a spectacularly large fish-eating raptor in the hawk family. The species is broken up into four subspecies, each occupying a different part of their nearly world-wide natural range. The biggest of the four, P. h. carolinensis, nests along North America's west coast, making it an icon of the Pacific – and in more recent years, the NFL! The name 'osprey' first made its appearance around 1460 and stems from the Latin phrase for 'bird of prey': avis prede.

Amazing hunters

Ospreys are unique among North American hawks in that fish make up 99 percent of their diet. These skilled aerial acrobats can be seen plunging from heights up to 40 metres (130 ft) in pursuit of a meal. They are adept at soaring and diving but not as manoeuvrable as other hawks, so they tend to keep to open areas, flying with stiff wing beats in a steady, rowing motion. Their characteristic white underbellies help to conceal them from below, while their brown outer feathers help hide them from high flyers (a strategy known as countershading). 

Special spines behind their talons and reversible outer toes help ospreys maintain grip while carrying fish in flight. Because the birds stay close to water bodies with a rich source of food, they're considered an indicator of the health and productivity of lake and river ecosystems: in the '70s a large drop in osprey numbers helped alert scientists to the link between the pesticide DDT and unhealthy fish.

Massive migrations

Image:Steve McLaren/Flickr

Ospreys can fly incredible distances. In fact, experts believe these birds log more than 160,000 miles during their lifespans of 15-20 years. In early 2013, one tagged osprey clocked over 2,700 miles in just 13 days! That's the equivalent of 47,520 footfall fields ... and a lot of touchdowns. 

Doting dads

Image: Mr.TinDC/Flickr

Ospreys are known to nest on man-made structures like telephone poles, dilapidated buildings and bridges (all you Northwesters, keep your eyes peeled!). As is the case in many other species, it's the male osprey that has to vie for the female's breeding attention ... but these doting dads go above and beyond. In the days before mating, male ospreys will fly slowly over the nest site giving screaming calls, whilst clutching their daily catch. If selected, each male will move on to fetching nesting material, and eventually foraging for his two to three chicks. Osprey eggs do not hatch all at once. The first chick emerges up to five days before the last one, becoming the dominant chick and monopolising dad's catches!  

Top header image: Philip Robertson/Flickr