Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus)

Northern Harrier

[order] ACCIPITRIFORMES | [family] Accipitridae | [latin] Circus cyaneus | [authority] Linnaeus, 1766 | [UK] Northern Harrier | [FR] Busard Saint-Martin | [DE] Kornweihe | [ES] Aguilucho Palido | [NL] Blauwe Kiekendief


Monotypic species


The genus Circus is a cosmopolitan genus of about ten species. They are medium-sized, slender hawks, the female being considerably larger than the male. They are characterised by long, narrow, rounded tails, small beaks and long, slender legs. The most notable characteristic is the owl-like ruff of facial feathers that cover unusually large ear openings – an adaptation not for low-light hunting, but to locate prey by their rustling and squeaking in tall grasses.

Physical charateristics

Larger and broader winged than races C. pygargus and C. macrourus. with white rump and dark grey band along trailing edge or secondaries, lacks black bar on upperwing of C. pygargus.
Female averages larger, dark brown above, pale below with dark streaks, from below, dark bands on primaries, secondaries and rectrices.
Juvenile very similar to female, but slightly darker above and ore rufous below. Race hudsonius has rusty markings on underparts.

Listen to the sound of Northern Harrier

[audio: Harrier.mp3]

Copyright remark: Most sounds derived from xeno-canto

wingspan min.: 97 cm wingspan max.: 118 cm
size min.: 45 cm size max.: 55 cm
incubation min.: 29 days incubation max.: 39 days
fledging min.: 32 days fledging max.: 39 days
broods: 1   eggs min.: 3  
      eggs max.: 6  


North America, Eurasia : widespread


The Hen Harrier is most commonly associated with open wetlands, including marshy meadows; wet, lightly grazed pastures; old fields; freshwater and brackish marshes; also dry uplands, including upland prairies, grasslands, drained marshlands, croplands, cold desert shrub-steppe, and riparian woodland. Tends to avoid areas of continuous forest.Densest populations typically associated with large tracts of undisturbed habitats dominated by thick vegetation growth.


Hen Harriers are both monogamous and polygamous. Polygamous males usually have two or three mates, although one individual is known to have attended seven females simultaneously. In polygamous situations, each female has her own nest, and the male tends to each female individually.
Aerial displays and courtship-feeding rates appear to be the principal factors in a female’s selection of a mate. Females sometimes abandon their mates during nestbuilding or courtship if the male fails to display enough or does not provide sufficient food. Males and females do not mate for life. Males usually return to the breeding grounds before females and begin aerial displays when the females arrive. “Sky-Dancing” is intense and more frequent in years when food is abundant, and males that display the most typically attract the largest number of females. Sky-Dancing involves a series of U-shaped, undulating flights at heights that range from 10 meters to 300 meters above the surrounding countryside, and that sometimes cover distances up to a kilometer or more. Males fly to potential nest sites at the end of their display, and interested females follow them. Although they often return to and nest in the same general area, Hen Harriers do not reuse the same nest site year after year.
Harriers build their nests on the ground, almost always in open habitats. Either the male or the female selects the site and both help build the nest. Most nests are placed in areas of dense grassy or shrubby vegetation, and frequently in wet areas, to reduce the risk of predation. Nest construction takes from several days to several weeks. Pairs continue to add nesting material during incubation and, sometimes, until the nestlings are three to four weeks old.
Harriers lay one clutch of four to six eggs annually. Replacement clutches are sometimes laid if the first clutch is destroyed. Incubation begins after the first egg is laid, and the nestlings hatch asynchronously. During the 30- to 32-day incubation period, the female tends the nest continually, leaving only to receive prey deliveries from the male, collect additional nesting material, and take short “exercise” flights. Nestlings are brooded continually for the first 12 to 14 days. Thereafter, the female spends less time at the nest during the day, but continues to brood the young at night for another two weeks. The male provides food to the female when she is at the nest. Males call as they approach the nest with prey and then pass the prey to the female in an aerial transfer. When the female is not at the nest, males sometimes drop food onto the nest, but they do not directly feed the young. Females mated to polygamous males typically receive less food from their mates than their monogamous counterparts, and such females often begin hunting earlier in the nestling period. As a result, nestlings in “polygamous” nests are more susceptible to predation.

By the time the nestlings are two weeks old, they begin to walk and hop up to 15 meters from the nest. Young harriers take their first, short flights when they are four to five weeks of age. After fledging, the young typically roost near each other at night and spend most of their day on perches waiting for their parents to return with food. Siblings often fly together and chase each other, particularly when the adults return to the nest with prey. Parents transfer prey to their young in the air, and the first fledgling to intercept the returning parent usually receives the food. Parents continue to provide the fledglings with food for two to four weeks after fledging. Fledglings spend less than an hour each day hunting, and they seldom catch prey on their own before becoming independent.

Feeding habits

Northern Harriers search for prey in open habitats, typically while flying close to the ground in buoyant gliding and flapping flight. The species prefers to hunt in open areas with mixed vegetative cover and tends to avoid areas with only short vegetation. Harriers rarely hunt while perched. In winter, individuals sometimes rob prey from each other.
The harrier’s owl-like facial ruff and tendency to fly close to the ground allows the species to hear, as well as see, potential prey, and the species often locates its prey by sound. Adult males tend to be the most successful hunters, followed by adult females.

Juveniles are decidedly less proficient hunters than adults. In summer, harriers feed on small- to medium-sized mammals (particularly rodents), as well as on birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Mammals and birds comprise the majority of the species’ diet in winter, but the diets of individuals vary depending upon their location. In the northern portion of their range, voles comprise the majority of the Northern Harrier’s diet. Large prey are usually torn apart before being eaten. Small prey, including mice and insects, sometimes are swallowed whole. Harriers sometimes hide, or cache, surplus food, particularly during the breeding season

Video Northern Harrier


copyright: Don DesJardin


This species has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). Despite the fact that the population trend appears to be decreasing, the decline is not believed to be sufficiently rapid to approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size is extremely large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.
This harrier inhabits a great diversity of open habitats in North America, South America and a large part of Eurasia, from the British Isles to Kamchatka. Its southern populations are sedentary. Those of the north-east of the continent are wintering in the south-west. The total population of the European Union amounts to about 4400 breeding pairs (EBCC Atlas of European Breeding Birds). In some areas it is slightly increasing, but overall it is decreasing.
Northern Harrier status Least Concern


Completely migratory in N of range, in N & NE Europe, Asia, N North America; partially migratory and dispersive in rest of breeding range. Winters from Scotland and S Sweden southwards, with very few birds reaching N Africa; in Asia, winters in area well separated from breeding range, from Turkey to E China and Japan; in America, from British Columbia and New Brunswick (Canada) through Central America to Panama and S to N Colombia, Venezuela and irregularly in Greater Antilles. Leaves for winter quarters from Aug-Oct, or even Nov; arrives in breeding range Mar-May, varying with latitude; migrates on wide fronts.

Distribution map

Northern Harrier distribution range map


Title Movements of British Hen Harriers Circus cyaneus outside the breeding season
Author(s): Brian Etheridge and Ron W. Summers
Abstract: Hen Harrier chicks were wing-tagged in four region..[more]..
Source: Ringing & Migration (2006) 23, 6-14

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Title Veranderungen in der Zusammensetzung der PCB- und DDT-Gemische in verschiedenen Lebensstadien der Wiesenweihe (Circus pygargus) und der Rohrweihe (Circus aeruginosus) in Nordrhein-Westfalen, Deutschland
Author(s): Eckhard Denker, Annegret Buthe, Doris Glimm, Manfred Holker, Werner Prunte und Theodor Trendelkamp*
Abstract: Egg and liver samples of Montagu’s and Marsh Harri..[more]..
Source: J. Ornithol. 144, 411-417 (2003)

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Title Habitat use by Hen Harriers Circus cyaneus on Orkney: implications of land-use change for this declining population
Abstract: The use of habitats by hunting Hen Harriers Circus..[more]..
Source: Ibis 147 (1), 37-47

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Title Food-niche differentiation in sympatric Hen Circus cyaneus and Montagu’s Harriers Circus pygargus
Author(s): J. T. GARCIA & B. E. ARROYO
Abstract: Hen Harriers Circus cyaneus and Montagu’s Harriers..[more]..
Source: Ibis 147 (1), 144-154

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