Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus)


The Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) is the only harrier amongst North America’s hawks. Also known as the Marsh Hawk, the Northern Harrier is an exceptional hunter. Nothern Harriers are popular with farmers as pest killers and are no threat to their own animal stocks. These remarkable birds of prey have also featured in superstition. In the past, Europeans used to believe that if a harrier perched on a house it was an omen that 3 people would die. Native Americans on the other hand believed that if you saw one on your wedding day that you would have a happy, long marriage.

How are Nothern Harriers identified? These are medium-sized hawks, measuring about 16.5 inches in length with a long wingspan of 42 inches. The wings are somewhat rounded and the tail long. The hooked beak is short and dark in color. Male Northern Harriers differ from the females. They have pale gray plumage that becomes lighter at the underparts. His head is a darker gray. The flight feathers have black tips and the tail is barred with narrow dark strips. The female Northern Harrier has buff under areas with dark streaks. During flight you will see her dark barring on the flight feathers as well as a dark inner wing. Both genders have flat owl-like faces. They are also easily identified by their flying pattern as they course over fields with the wings held at an angle to the body.

Northern Harriers are found across North America, Europe and Asia. They chiefly reside in open areas such as tundra, steppes, grasslands, meadows, wetlands and agricultural zones. These harriers will feed on a variety of small mammals, insects, birds and reptiles, even occasionally dining on carrion. The harrier will glide down close to the ground, relying heavily on their sense of hearing, which is aided by their facial disk. After locating prey they will quickly swoop down in a surprise attack.

One of the most acrobatic raptors, the Northern Harrier displays before the female a most intricate courtship flight with clever maneuvering. Nests are built on the ground and are made of sticks and other vegetation. A clutch of 5 eggs is laid in the nest. Incubation is for 29 to 31 days during which time the male Northern Harrier provides the female with food. The offspring fledge after 30 to 40 days but are still dependent on their parents. Northern Harriers live for plus-minus 12 years.