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Northern Harrier

Circus cyaneus

Northern harriers are medium-sized raptors with long, broad wings and a rounded tail. (Radovan Vaclav/Flickr)
Northern harriers are medium-sized raptors with long, broad wings and a rounded tail. (Radovan Vaclav/Flickr)

Also known as the hen harrier or marsh hawk, the northern harrier can be found in Chesapeake Bay marshes during winter, flying low to hunt for prey.


  • Slender, medium-sized raptor with long, broad wings and a rounded tail
  • Females are larger than males
  • Both sexes have black-banded tails and white rumps
  • When viewed from above, males appear gray. When viewed from below, they appear white. Females and immature birds are brown with white undersides
  • Flat, owl-like face
  • Small, sharply hooked beak
  • Yellow legs


  • Can be found in open habitats with low ground cover, including grasslands, marshes, meadows, wetlands, riparian forests and pastures


  • One of the most widespread of all harrier species, the northern harrier’s range includes much of North America, Europe and Asia
  • In North America, the northern harrier can be found from Alaska and Canada south to Mexico, wintering as far south as Central or South America and the Caribbean
  • Can be found in the Chesapeake Bay watershed in winter


  • Rely on vision and hearing to capture prey
  • Fly low to the ground while hunting
  • Feed on small mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds


  • Low, slow coursing style of flight
  • Wings held in a V-shape


  • Calls include a long, rapid series of kek notes and a soft, chuckling call at the nest

Reproduction and Life Cycle:

  • Breeding takes place in wide open habitats between April and July
  • While courting, males perform elaborate flying barrel rolls to impress females
  • Males can have as many as five mates at once, though most have only one or two
  • Nests are concealed on the ground in grasses or wetland vegetation
  • Females lays three to six eggs and incubate them for 29 to 31 days. Males provide food to mates and offspring while females incubate eggs and brood chicks
  • Chicks fledge at 29 to 42 days. Sexual maturity is reached around two to three years, and lifespan can be up to 15 years
  • Roost in loose colonies of 10 to 100 birds

Other Facts:

  • The northern harrier is the only member of the harrier family that inhabits North America.
  • Humans pose a threat to northern harrier populations: the drainage of wetlands, intensification of agriculture and reforestation of farmland can reduce prey availability and nesting sites.

Sources and Additional Information:

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