Pied Harrier (Circus melanoleucos)

Pied Harrier

[order] ACCIPITRIFORMES | [family] Accipitridae | [latin] Circus melanoleucos | [authority] Pennant, 1769 | [UK] Pied Harrier | [FR] Busard tchoug | [DE] Elsterweihe | [ES] Aguilucho pio | [NL] Bonte Kiekendief


Genus Species subspecies Region Range
Circus melanoleucos EU e


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

In the adult male the head, nape, back and scapulars black (the latter being sometimes tipped with white). The upper-tail coverts are white with some grey barring. The tail quills are grey with silver overtones, becoming brown in worn plumage. The lesser upper- wing coverts are pale grey with white edges; contrasting strongly with the black median coverts. The outer primaries are black; the inner primaries and secondaries are grey, with silver overtones like the tail. Under the chin, the throat and breast are black. The rest of the under side is white, with the exception of the under-tail quills, which are very pale grey. The primaries are black below, the secondaries grey, broadly edged with white on the inner webs. The eyes are yellow, the cere dull yellow or green, the feet yellow to orange yellow.
The adult female has a dark brown crown and nape, with paler streaks; the rest of her upper side is dark brown, some feathers on wing coverts being edged with buff. The upper-tail coverts are barred brown and white. The tail is greyish brown with five visible broad brown bands; the upper-tail coverts are barred brown and white; the wing quills dark brown, barred with black, and the secondaries edged with pale grey. Below she is white with a rufous wash streaked with dark reddish brown. Her thighs and under-tail coverts are almost unstreaked. The underside of the tail quills is broadly barred dark and light grey. The under-wing coverts are buff barred with brown; the quills grey, with pinkish buff on inner webs, barred darker grey and broadly tipped with black on the primaries. Her eyes are brown; her legs yellow, and her cere greyish. The immature Pied Harrier is dark rufous brown above, streaked paler on the crown and nape; the upper-tail coverts are buff, forming a pale patch at the base of the tail. The under side, including under-wing coverts, is rich dark chestnut, streaked with black and buff. The tail and wing quills are like those of the adult female, but with a more rufous colour generally. The eyes are brown, the cere yellow, and the legs orange. The adult male in pied dress is unmistakable, black and white with silver grey tail and secondaries. The wing appears grey in flight with a black leading edge and tip. Females are similar to the Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus) in size and build, but are much paler, white below with a few streaks, as opposed to brown streaked darker, and they lack the conspicuous white patch at the base of the tail present in the Pallid (Circus macrourus), Montagu’s (Circus pygargus) and Hen Harriers (Circus cyaneus). Juveniles are darker below than those of these three species, and approach in colour juveniles and females of the eastern race of the Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus spilonotus), from which the much smaller size, the absence of much streaking on head and neck, and general habits should distinguish them.

wingspan min.: 103 cm wingspan max.: 116 cm
size min.: 41 cm size max.: 49 cm
incubation min.: 28 days incubation max.: 37 days
fledging min.: 0 days fledging max.: 0 days
broods: 1   eggs min.: 4  
      eggs max.: 5  


Eurasia : East. Breeding from East Siberia southwards to Mongolia, North Korea and in North Burma; the Pied Harrier (Circus melanoleucus) winters from India and Sri Lanka through Burma and south to Borneo. It is only very rarely seen in peninsular India and Sri Lanka.


This species is the eastern counterpart of Montagu’s Harrier, though more wedded to wet ground in the winter. In its breeding quarters it prefers open steppe, meadows in river valleys; and in the north boggy areas overgrown with scrub birch. Within these areas its habits are similar to those of other harriers of its size, flying low and quartering the ground methodically, perching occasionally on stumps, posts, or hummocks of earth. In winter quarters it frequents both open plains and cultivation, but shows a preference for rice fields. It arrives on migration when these are newly flooded, in September or October, but it remains there after they have dried off. It is the most common of the harriers in winter from Bengal east to Thailand and beyond, but in Peninsular India is rather rare. In winter it roosts communally with Marsh and Pallid Harriers.


The display flight is similar to that of other harriers, soaring up, circling, then diving down at the female. The male calls a great deal in display. Mating takes place on the ground and, just before egg-laying, on the nest. Nests are built on the ground, among long grass or low shrubs, about a kilometre apart. They are made of grass, reeds and weeds, 40-50cm across, with a depression in the centre. They are sometimes used more than once.
Four or five eggs are laid, at 48-hour intervals. They are white, or greenish, sometimes with a few brown spots. Incubation is mostly by the female; the male will take a share if the female meets with disaster. The period is more than 30 days. The young hatch over a period of up to a week, and the eldest is for some time a lot bigger than the youngest. They make their first flights in about the middle of July, but remain near the nest for some time, being fed by their parents. They achieve independence in late August in the North, and in late June to July at the southern fringe of the range. The whole breeding cycle from display to independence of the young occupies about 100-110 days. Both parents feed the young. The male does most in the early stages; the female takes part later, and the male may at this stage take prey direct to the nest. In late August they gather into small flocks before leaving on their autumn migration, but they are less gregarious at this time than some other harriers.

Feeding habits

In their winter quarters the main food source is frogs, taken in rice fields. In spring they take mainly small mammals, but also frogs, lizards, ground birds and insects; in summer more birds, up to the size of magpies or crows, but in general fewer birds than some other harriers. Burmese-breeding birds apparently feed largely on insects and frogs, and only rarely on birds.

Video Pied Harrier


copyright: J. del Hoyo


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 may be moderately small to large, but it is not believed to 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.
Pied Harrier status Least Concern


Migratory, wintering mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, Indian Subcontinent, Sri Lanka and Burma; rare, or much less common, in Mediterranean Basin, Middle East, Arabia, Iran and South and East China; some birds may remain in S of breeding range. Migrates on broad front; leaves for winter quarters from August, mainly in September, arriving up to October-November. Leaves for breeding areas in March-April; African wintering population moves farther West than in autumn, with some of passage through Maghreb and Central Mediterranean. In winter quarters, may make nomadic movements in search of concentrations of food, e.g. locust swarms.

Distribution map

Pied Harrier distribution range map

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *