The Sketch

Northern Harrier: The Gray Ghost

Across North America, from the Arctic Tundra to the grasslands south of the border, if you look in the right places, you’ll find peculiar creatures haunting the landscape. First they'll come into view over a distant marsh or meadow, steel gray with glowing yellow eyes. Then they’ll drift slowly across the land, silently stalking their prey. In short, they're pretty unsettling, but these “gray ghosts,” as they’re known, aren't visitors from the other side. They're Northern Harriers—adult male Northern Harriers, to be specific—and not only are they our spookiest hawks, but they may also be our most unusual.

The Northern Harrier is this continent’s only representative of a global group of raptors that are specially designed for silent hunting: Its long, broad wings allow it to cruise low, with minimal flapping, and it moves slowly for a hawk—no need for the showy speed of falcons or the lumbering hulk of buteos here. Northern Harriers hunt using their ears as well as their eyes, and to help them they’ve evolved a special circular arrangement of stiff feathers on their face that collects the sounds of rustling creatures and focuses them on the bird’s ears. These “facial discs” are rare in hawks but commonplace in owls, and if you perceive something owlish in the harrier’s face, that’s why. Unlike owls, though, Northern Harriers are bold enough to hunt during the day, cruising over wetlands, grasslands, prairies, fields, or anywhere else little animals are trying to use vegetation to hide. When it spots its prey—a mouse, or a vole, or a snake, or maybe a duck or shorebird—it uses its long tail like an aerial rudder to maneuver quickly into position to pounce. If there’s water around, Northern Harriers have even been known to kill their larger victims by drowning them.

Despite their unnerving vibe, there's no need to fear the Northern Harrier—they’re not interested in humans (although according to an unsourced claim on Wikipedia, some Europeans once believed that a harrier perched on your roof was an omen that three people would die). And should you want to seek them out, you can find Northern Harriers all over the U.S., especially in winter. But if you’re only going by color, you may be missing them—unlike most hawks we have in America, male and female Northern Harriers have very different plumages, and only adult males are “gray ghosts,” with gray feathers on the back and pure white below, with black on the tips and trailing edge of the wings. Females, meanwhile, are brown-backed and streaked below, while juveniles of both sexes are brown with rich orange bellies. Despite their differences, all Northern Harriers have one characteristic in common: a bright white rump, which, combined with the bird’s unique flight silhouette—the Northern Harrier glides with its wings positioned in a V-shape, like a Turkey Vulture—serves as a pretty good tip-off that you’re looking at a Circus cyaneus.

Northern Harriers are also found across Europe and Asia, where they’re known as Hen Harriers (a reference to their penchant for young grouse and fowl), and in England they’ve even been the subject of royal intrigue. In October 2007, birders at a nature reserve in Norfolk, England, watched as two Hen Harriers were shot out of the sky. The shots had come from the adjacent estate—which happened to belong to the Queen. Shooting Hen Harriers is illegal in the U.K., and investigators interviewed three people who had been hunting on the estate when the harriers were killed—including none other than Prince Harry himself, as well as a family friend and a gamekeeper from the estate. The bodies of the harriers were never found, however, and no charges were brought. 

Why would anyone want to shoot harriers? Unfortunately, the harrier’s penchant for grouse has gotten it into trouble in the U.K., where hunting for red grouse is a big business on estates. Human/harrier competition over grouse there has led to the persecution of harriers, and while globally the species’ populations are quite healthy, in England they’re plummeting, making the Hen Harrier the most endangered breeding bird of prey in the country.  (For more on the plight of the Hen Harrier, see here.) If conservationists and the government can’t find a way to successfully protect them, England’s Hen Harriers could become ghosts for real. Now that’s scary.