Northern Harrier


A common sight around North Dakota on large tracts of rangelands and wetlands during the summertime is a slim, long-tailed hawk, either brown or gray, with a white rump patch, flying and gliding low over the landscape.  The conspicuous white rump patch is a key characteristic in identifying those hawks as northern harriers.

Many among us probably know this hawk as the marsh hawk.  That common name is likely a reference to the birds preference for frequenting marshy areas where it searches for prey items such as mice, voles, frogs,  snakes, and the like  It may also be related to the fact that these birds are ground nesters and often nest in and around marshes.

The northern harrier is not your typical broad winged, broad tailed hawk that typically soars high overhead in search of prey.  Common types of those hawks (called buteos) include the red-tailed hawk, Swainson’s hawk, and ferruginous hawk.  The northern harrier is a different type of hawk, a harrier, which may be characterized as having long slim wings and a long tail.  And rather than soaring high overhead, they generally will glide much closer to the ground with their wings raised outward slightly.

I suspect that many casual observers are of the impression that these gray and brown hawks are two closely related species, but they are not.  Like many bird species, the northern harrier exhibits sexual dimorphism which means that the males and females look different.  In this case it is the males that are gray while the females (and immature birds) are brown.  Also, as with many other birds of prey, the females are also generally a bit larger than the males.

Northern harriers have a rather interesting breeding behavior.  One male will mate with several females.  That is not uncommon, but what is uncommon is that the male provides food for his bred females as well as their offspring.  No loafing around for these males.

The nests of northern harriers are basically platforms of vegetation such as cattails, situated amongst thick stands of cattails or bulrushes, or perhaps among buckbrush or other dense vegetation in the adjacent uplands.  If all goes well, a clutch of 4-5 eggs will hatch after about 30 days of incubation.

So as you travel our state this summer, be on the lookout for this low flying hawk with the white rump patch.  The males are gray while the females are brown.   And if you get the opportunity to watch them, take the time to become familiar with their flight pattern and use of habitat.   Odds are some marshes nearby too.

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.

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