Photo: G. Lasley/Vireo

Northern Harrier

Circus cyaneus

Parts of Europe and Asia have several kinds of harriers, but North America has only one. Harriers are very distinctive hawks, long-winged and long-tailed, usually seen quartering low over the ground in open country. At close range, the face of our Northern Harrier looks rather like that of an owl; like an owl (and unlike most other hawks) it may rely on its keen hearing to help it locate prey as it courses low over the fields.
Conservation status Has disappeared from many former nesting areas, especially in southern parts of range, and surveys suggest that it is still declining in parts of North America.
Family Hawks and Eagles
Habitat Marshes, fields, prairies. Found in many kinds of open terrain, both wet and dry habitats, where there is good ground cover. Often found in marshes, especially in nesting season, but sometimes will nest in dry open fields.
Parts of Europe and Asia have several kinds of harriers, but North America has only one. Harriers are very distinctive hawks, long-winged and long-tailed, usually seen quartering low over the ground in open country. At close range, the face of our Northern Harrier looks rather like that of an owl; like an owl (and unlike most other hawks) it may rely on its keen hearing to help it locate prey as it courses low over the fields.
Photo Gallery
Feeding Behavior

Usually hunts by flying low over fields, scanning the ground; males tend to fly lower and faster than females. May find some prey by sound. On locating prey in dense cover, may hover low over site or attempt to drive prey out into open.


Eggs

4-6, sometimes 2-7, rarely more. Pale bluish-white, fading to white and becoming nest-stained; sometimes spotted with pale brown. Incubation is by female only, 30-32 days. Young: Female remains with young most of time at first; male brings food and delivers it to female, who feeds it to young. After young are about 2 weeks old, female does much of the hunting for them. Young may move short distances away from nest after about a week, but return to nest to be fed; are able to fly at about 30-35 days.


Young

Female remains with young most of time at first; male brings food and delivers it to female, who feeds it to young. After young are about 2 weeks old, female does much of the hunting for them. Young may move short distances away from nest after about a week, but return to nest to be fed; are able to fly at about 30-35 days.

Diet

Mostly small mammals and birds. Diet varies with location and season. Often specializes on voles, rats, or other rodents; also takes other mammals, up to size of small rabbits. May eat many birds, from songbirds up to size of flickers, doves, small ducks. Also eats large insects (especially grasshoppers), snakes, lizards, toads, frogs. May feed on carrion, especially in winter.


Nesting

Often nests in loose colonies; one male may have two or more mates. In courtship, male flies up and then dives, repeatedly, in a roller-coaster pattern. Nest site is on ground in dense field or marsh, sometimes low over shallow water. Nest built mostly by female, with male supplying some material. Nest may be shallow depression lined with grass, or platform of sticks, grass, weeds.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Migration

Some southern birds may be permanent residents, but northern ones migrate. At least in North America, always migrates singly. Time of migration is spread out over long season in both spring and fall.

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Migration

Some southern birds may be permanent residents, but northern ones migrate. At least in North America, always migrates singly. Time of migration is spread out over long season in both spring and fall.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
At the nest it utters a kee-kee-kee-kee or a sharp whistle, but usually silent.