The northern harrier is a sleek bird of prey with a long, narrow tail. The adult male is a pale gray color and the female has a brown back and brown-streaked belly. Additionally, the wingtips of adult males are black. A prominent field mark of both the male and female northern harrier is its white rump that shows most easily in flight. These birds characteristically soar close to the ground. Like other hawk-like birds, they have a sharp, down-turned beak and long sharp talons. When gliding, harriers sometimes hold their wings in a dihedral or "V" shape.
Although they primarily eat small rodents (mice and voles), amphibians, small reptiles, small rabbits, and other birds, northern harriers will eat some invertebrates as well. Their predators include striped skunks and raccoons, who steal eggs from their nests, red foxes, feral cats, and other birds.
Sexual maturity is reached at one year. Mating season is from March through June. Nests are built on the ground or on a mound of dirt or vegetation. They are made of sticks and are lined inside with grass and leaves. The nests are usually 15 to 30 inches (38 to 76 cm) in diameter. Four to eight eggs are laid over several days. The eggs are bluish-white and usually unmarked. Incubation is between 24 to 39 days. The young birds may leave the nest 30 days after they hatched. Life span of the northern harrier is about 12 years.
Northern harriers hunt by flying low to the ground in open areas. Harriers circle an area several times listening and looking for prey. When they spot prey, they swoop down and grab the prey with their sharp claws. These are the only hawk-like bird known to practice polygyny - one male mates with several females. When incubating eggs, the female sits on the nest while the male hunts and brings food to her and the chicks.
The genus name, Circus, comes from the Greek word kirkos and describes the bird's habit of flying in low circles while hunting; cyaneus refers to their blue-gray color. Northern harriers can fly more than 100 miles (161 km) every day. Harriers and other hawk-like birds can see eight times more clearly than humans. Since they nest on the ground, their nests are in danger of being trampled by cattle and deer and are unprotected from fires. They depend heavily on hearing while hunting; the ruffled feathers around their faces help direct sound towards their ears.
The northern harrier prefers coastal prairies, marshes, grasslands, swamps and other open areas.
Northern harriers range from central Canada south to Texas. They migrate southward in the winter, and may be found throughout all of Texas between September and May.
The northern harrier, also known in North America as the marsh hawk, is a bird of prey that is common in Texas during the winter months. It preys on small rodents, reptiles, and amphibians. It is the only species of harrier found in North America.
Once upon a time, in some parts of Europe people believed that seeing a harrier perched on a house was a sign that three people would die; on a happier note, some Native American tribes believe that seeing a hawk on your wedding day is a sign of a long, happy marriage.
Many farmers like northern harriers because they eat predators of quail eggs and mice that damage crops. Harriers are sometimes called "good hawks" because they pose no threat to poultry as some hawks do. Heavy pesticide use in the 1970s and 1980s caused a decline in harrier populations.