Most every North Dakotan has occasionally seen a medium sized hawk with long and slender wings and a white rump patch flying closely to the ground, swaying a bit from side to side, with the wings slightly raised outward. The hawks predominate color is either gray or brown, making the casual observer to perhaps deduce that there are two closely related species.
These hawks are northern harriers, or what many of us first learned as marsh hawks. They are one of a handful of raptors in which the males and females look obviously different. It is the females that are predominately brown, while the males are gray above with white below.
Northern harriers feed mainly on small mammals such as mice and voles as well as frogs and snakes. Their keen vision is obviously important in finding prey, but if you ever get a close look at a harrier you will notice that they have facial disks similar to that of owls. Facial disks are known to help detect and focus in on sounds, so these birds are using both sight and sound to locate their prey.
Charles Flugum in his book Birding from a Tractor Seat published in 1973 clearly describes, presumably from his tractor seat, a northern harrier hunting:
“The marsh hawk, or harrier flew slowly a few feet over the ground. When it spotted a mouse, it hovered a moment before lifting its wings up over its back and pouncing down with both feed outstretched to catch the mouse, along with a little grass.”
Northern harriers are also rather unusual birds of prey in our area because they generally nest on the ground. Their nests may be found in a variety of habitats ranging from wet meadow or cattails to prairie hilltops. However, they are perhaps most commonly encountered in patches of shrubs such as buckbrush or wild rose.
Northern harriers are native to both North America and northern Eurasia. Here in North America their breeding range encompasses Alaska and much of Canada and the northern portions of the United States. As with many other hawks, they spend their winters in the southern United States, or Central or South America.
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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