Harrier



Harriers are medium-sized, long-legged, and long-tailed raptors, with an owl-like facial disk and usually a conspicuous white rump patch. Adult male and female have different plumages. There is one species in North America, nesting as far north as Alaska.




NORTHERN HARRIER OR
MARSH HAWK
CIRCUS CYANEUS

Harriers are 19-24 inches long, with a wingspan of 50-56 inches, weighing around 1-1/2 pounds.

DESCRIPTION
Adult males have pale, bluish gray backs, white underparts, and a gray tail with dark bands. Females have brown backs, undersides with light brown and dark streaks, and tail barred with black and tan. Young birds resemble the female. Harriers have a white rump patch conspicuous from a distance, which helps with identification. They hold their wings in a V-shape and often fly close to the ground seeking prey. They are birds of open country. Voice is a weak, nasal “pee, pee, pee.”




HABITAT
Harriers live in marshes, wet meadows, bogs, and flat open farmland.

NEST
The nest is on or near the ground, sometimes in fields and sometimes on a branch over water. Nest is made of straw, sticks, and grasses lined with feathers.

EGGS
About 5, oval, dull white to pale blue.

INCUBATION

Mostly by the female, for about a month.

FEEDING HABITS
These hawks hunt with a distinctive quartering flight, flying low over the ground and attacking when they see prey, including mice, small birds, insects, and rabbits. Males prey more on birds and females more on mammals. Harriers are reported to drown waterfowl. Northern harriers can locate prey by sound, aided by
the feathers on the facial disk, in the same manner as owls.




NATURAL HISTORY
Harriers get their name from the word “harrier,” meaning to plunder. Unlike most hawks, harriers have an unusual hunting flight flying only about 20 feet above the ground, flapping the wings and gliding back and forth searching for a meal. Because
these birds hunt primarily in fresh-water marshes and open grasslands, it is often possible to see them from a great distance.
Unlike other hawks, harriers do not usually perch in high trees, but prefer fence posts and low stumps. They sometimes have communal roosts, like vultures, during winter. Males have a spectacular courtship flight, rising hundreds of feet into the air,
then divebombing to within 10 feet of the female, then sweeping back up. The male feeds the female while she is incubating; the
female flips on her back to catch with her talons the food dropped by the male. Most harriers do not return to their nesting
grounds year after year as do other hawks. Life-span is to at least 16 years.




STATUS
This bird is almost out of its range in West Virginia, perhaps because of limited wetlands. There are a few nesting records, and the bird can be seen in suitable habitat and during fall migration.