Birding Thursday: Northern Harrier

Birding Thursday: Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus)


Hands down, one of my favorite hawks.  Ok, I’m a bigger fan of falcons like the Merlin and American Kestrel, but that will be for another Birding Thursday. So for now, the Marsh Hawk, or Hen Harrier! Gray Ghost!? This bird has so many different names!

Working in Southern and Central California means I have had the chance to see more than a few of these beauties in their natural environment and let me tell you, they are graceful and swift hunters.

As adults, these birds can grow up to a foot long with a wing span from 3.5 to 4.5 feet wide and weigh a slight 12-18 ounces. The male and female adults look very different from each other, unlike most other hawks.  The male has a gray back and hood with a white belly while the female is mostly mottled brown colors all over her body. They both have the distinguishing white rump and owl-like facial disk on their face, which aids in hunting.

(Male Northern Harrier; Source)

This bird can be found in several different habitats including grasslands, wetlands, meadows, croplands, tundra and riparian woodlands. You would most likely see them flying low to the ground, slow and elegantly, as they hunt for prey by sound, much like their raptor counterparts the owl.  They are looking mostly for rodents as they hunt, but also small birds, reptiles, and insects, but have been known to catch larger prey like rabbits and squirrels.


As far as reproduction goes, the Northern Harrier is a ground nester. Made primarily of grass and twigs they make nests in dense ground cover areas and might lay 3-6 eggs, depending on how strong the rodent population is that year. The young hatch after about 30 days of incubation but don’t leave the nest for another 4-6 months as their parents teach them everything they need to know.


We are lucky in that their numbers haven’t dropped too much over the years but their habitats are severely threatened by urban sprawl and dare I say, alternative energy like solar plants.  Looks like these guys will have their work cut out for them if we don’t keep our grasslands and open fields well, open, in the future!

I also wanted to show you an amazing drawing a friend of mine did of the Northern Harrier.  Head over to his blog if you would like to see some more sketches and great photos of birds from his field work this year!


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15 Responses to Birding Thursday: Northern Harrier

  1. madeline says:

    wow… what a great sketch! thanks for sharing. i LOVE birding thursdays :)

    • Melissa says:

      Thanks Madeline! I’m glad you’re enjoying them! If there is a particular bird you would like to learn about just let me know!

  2. B. William says:

    Great post Melissa. Although a common occurrence, I love it every time I get to see these birds. Can’t wait to read a post on Merlins!

  3. What a beautiful bird! It’s going to be very interesting to watch the tension between alternative energy and habitat in the upcoming years. Some tough choices to be made, and a big need for better solutions!

    • Melissa says:

      I definitely agree. I just visited some old work sites that were proposed for wind turbines and solar plants and it just about killed my heart. I know we need alternative energy, but why do we need to put it in pristine areas? Why can we not just put it where the resources already are? Like solar panels on top of parking garages, large supermarkets/buildings, houses? It drives me kind of crazy…And now that Obama has been reelected the XL Keystone Pipeline is in the news again on whether or not he’ll support it. I really hope not. So much has already been degraded, destroyed and completely lost to these types of developments.

      • Sarah says:

        We’ve got a lot of solar panels on roofs here, and when my parents visited they were like “why do they have to put those solar hot water heaters on the roof? It’s so ugly!” But that’s where the sun is, mom!

        With the turbines, at least here we’ve seen that even when they DO put them near where the infrastructure is, the local people make up health impacts! Have you heard about the people complaining about windfarms in Australia? They claim “nausea, loss of appetite, headache, vertigo, dizziness, inability to concentrate, an overwhelming desire to get outside and anxiety”. There were even people sleeping in their cars in protest. Never mind the fact that living near a coal-fired power plant is far, far worse…it’s much more familiar and therefore less scary to people…perhaps?

        • Melissa says:

          Oh goodness, I have heard the same things from people about the aesthetics of an area when it comes to wind turbines and solar panels! Everyone always tells me how they think the panels are so ugly. But now a days there are so many ways of say, sticking on them on the back side of your house and they rotate throughout the day to catch the most sun. Presto! No one has to see them because they’re in your backyard!

          And the turbine arguments, I had to deal with a land owner how had a child that was prone to seizures and constantly argued that the swooshing, blinking red light and flicker affect could kill her son if he was exposed to it. I haven’t heard any studies about it, but I took her seriously because obviously I don’t want anyone to die. But I have spent day after day underneath those things, day and night, rain or snow or shine and i have never gotten sick from them. Bunch of poppycock.

          I think you’re right that people are less afraid of things that are more familiar to them, even if it may be more detrimental to their health. When will people learn that habit is not better than health!? Geez.

  4. biz319 says:

    So cool! And I too love birding Thursdays!! I always learn something new. :D Hugs!

    • Melissa says:

      Thanks Biz! If there is a bird you’d like to learn more about just let me know and I’ll try and feature it soon!

  5. madeline says:

    Melissa, I know we in DC are on the opposite coast from you.. but there’s a wonderful exhibit at the National Geographic Museum right now featuring Birds of Paradise! I work at NG so I’m loving it — it’s just downstairs :) Also some stuff in the current NG Magazine on these amazing little birds too

    • Melissa says:

      That would be such a great exhibit to see! I’ll let my brother know and maybe he can make his way down there to see it (he goes to Columbia)…or maybe I can take a trip out to DC before it’s over! HAH! I’m jealous you get to work for NG; I have been reading their magazine since I was a kid and actually the work I did this summer in Peru was done through a grant from Nat Geo! So fun!

  6. madeline says:

    So neato your time in Peru was via a NG grant! And definitely let me know if you or your brother will be able to fit in a visit to the exhibit! it goes until May.

  7. j says:

    Love this bird, im in the talks with some professors to do my Master’s on them so i think that tells you how much i love them!

    • Melissa says:

      That’s awesome! I can’t wait to see what you decide to do with them! I’ve been thinking about getting my master’s or PhD lately, and if i were to go back and do it would definitely be on the Rufous Hummingbird or Merlins!

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