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Northern Harrier

Circus cyaneus ORDER: ACCIPITRIFORMES FAMILY: ACCIPITRIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Northern Harrier is distinctive from a long distance away: a slim, long-tailed hawk gliding low over a marsh or grassland, holding its wings in a V-shape and sporting a white patch at the base of its tail. Up close it has an owlish face that helps it hear mice and voles beneath the vegetation. Each gray-and-white male may mate with several females, which are larger and brown. These unusual raptors have a broad distribution across North America and Eurasia.

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Keys to identification Help

Hawks
Hawks
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Northern Harriers are slender, medium-sized raptors with long, fairly broad wings and a long, rounded tail. They have a flat, owl-like face and a small, sharply hooked bill. Harriers often fly with their wings held in a dihedral, or V-shape above the horizontal.

  • Color Pattern

    Males are gray above and whitish below with black wingtips, a dark trailing edge to the wing, and a black-banded tail. Females and immatures are brown, with black bands on the tail. Adult females have whitish undersides with brown streaks, whereas immatures are buffy, with less streaking. All Northern Harriers have a white rump patch that is obvious in flight.

  • Behavior

    Northern Harriers fly low over the ground when hunting, weaving back and forth over fields and marshes as they watch and listen for small animals. They eat on the ground, and they perch on low posts or trees. On the breeding grounds, males perform elaborate flying barrel rolls to court females.

  • Habitat

    Northern Harriers breed in wide-open habitats ranging from Arctic tundra to prairie grasslands to fields and marshes. Their nests are concealed on the ground in grasses or wetland vegetation. In migration and winter, harriers typically move south away from areas that receive heavy snow cover, ending up in open habitats similar to those in which they breed.

Range Map Help

Northern Harrier Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male

    Northern Harrier

    Adult male
    • Lanky raptor, soaring on long, slender wings
    • Long tail
    • Adult males, known as "gray ghosts" are pale gray overall
    • Black wing-tips contrast with mostly white underwings
    • © Ganesh Jayaraman, Bluff Top Coastal Park, Half Moon Bay, California, October 2009
  • Adult female

    Northern Harrier

    Adult female
    • Lanky, medium-sized raptor
    • Often seen soaring low over open fields or marshes
    • White rump patch
    • Long, slender wings
    • © Robinsegg, Farmington Bay, Utah, February 2009
  • Adult female

    Northern Harrier

    Adult female
    • Long wings and tail
    • Owl-like facial disc
    • Female mostly brown with dark streaking on belly
    • © Guy Litcher, Oak Hammock Marsh, Manitoba, Canada, May 2012
  • Juvenile

    Northern Harrier

    Juvenile
    • Frequently seen hovering and coursing over fields
    • Lanky proportions with long, slender wings and long tail
    • Juveniles show unmarked rusty/buffy underparts, chocolate-brown upperparts
    • White rump patch
    • © Lois Manowitz, Whitewater Draw, McNeal , Arizona, November 2010
  • Adult male

    Northern Harrier

    Adult male
    • Adult males very pale and "ghostly" gray
    • Long, slender wings
    • Bright white under-wings contrast with black wing-tips
    • Owl-like facial disc
    • © Stuart Oikawa, Manitoba, Canada, April 2012
  • Juvenile

    Northern Harrier

    Juvenile
    • Medium-sized, lanky raptor with long wings and tail
    • Often perches prominently on fence-posts or on ground
    • Juvenile mostly brown above, pale buffy below
    • Owl-like facial disc
    • © Simon Richards, Delta, British Columbia, Canada, May 2012

Similar Species

  • Light-morph adult

    Rough-legged Hawk

    Light-morph adult
    • Often observed in same habitat as Northern Harrier
    • Stockier, with shorter tail and broader wings
    • Dark patches on wings and belly
    • White at base of under-tail
    • © Raymond Lee, Beaver County, Alberta, Canada, October 2011
  • Adult

    Short-eared Owl

    Adult
    • Often seen in same habitat as Northern Harrier
    • Stockier overall, with broader, more rounded wings
    • Shorter tail
    • © Cameron Rognan, Ovid, New York, January 2009
  • Immature

    Cooper's Hawk

    Immature
    • Stockier than Northern Harrier with much shorter, rounded wings
    • Tail longer proportionally with evenly-spaced dark bands
    • No white rump patch
    • No facial disc
    • © Gerry Dewaghe, October 2008

Similar Species

Among the hawks, harriers have a slender, long-winged and long-tailed shape that is all their own. Rough-legged Hawks (and other buteos) are larger and heavier-bodied, with broader, rounder wings and shorter tails. Rough-legged Hawks do fly with their wings in a V-shape or dihedral, but they don’t quarter low over the ground in the classic harrier style. Cooper’s Hawks have shorter, rounder wings and tend to live in the forest. Cooper’s Hawks don’t dawdle over fields with slow, coursing flight like harriers. Northern Goshawks are rare in open habitats, and hunt with quick flight much like a larger and stronger version of a Cooper’s Hawk. Adult goshawks are gray with strong black-and-white facial pattern, while immatures are very heavily streaked below. Goshawks also lack the harrier’s prominent white rump.

Find This Bird

In fall through spring, look for harriers in wide-open grasslands, marshes, or fields. You’re most likely to notice Northern Harriers when they are flying. Note the low, slow, coursing flight style, the bird’s V-shaped wing posture, and its white rump. During migration in the fall and spring, you can also see harriers high in the sky over mountain ridges and coastlines.