Learning about Harriers

by Sue Ann Kendall

For the past couple of years, I have been observing one or more harriers on our ranch property north of Cameron. I will admit that I thought harriers were dogs or airplanes until I looked the bird up on Merlin Bird ID. I thought maybe some of my fellow Master Naturalists would like to learn a bit about these beautiful hawks.

photo by Dan Pancamo

As soon as I spotted one, I had a feeling that these weren’t our usual hawk species around here (red-tails, red-shouldered, kestrels), because of their actions. Rather than sitting on a high perch or flying high and diving, these hawks were skimming the pasture and then diving in for what I assume are mice, since our fields are full of them.

The resources I look at say they are uncommon around here, so I feel lucky to have her flying around here. I say “her,” because the hawk I have been observing is brown, rather than gray like a male would be. You can’t miss the patch of white on her rump area, which is the second main identifier of northern harriers.

Northern Harrier.
Steven Sachs / Audubon Photography Awards

Harriers are fun to watch, since they are lower to the ground while they hunt, and you can get a good look at how they comb the area for food. It’s sort of like a vacuum cleaner, in that they go down a field, turn, and go back a few yards to the left or right of the first pass. Soon enough, something gets caught.

Little did I know how they actually hunt! It turns out they use their ears, unlike most other hawks. According to the All about Birds website from Cornell Labs:

Northern Harriers are the most owl-like of hawks (though they’re not related to owls). They rely on hearing as well as vision to capture prey. The disk-shaped face looks and functions much like an owl’s, with stiff facial feathers helping to direct sound to the ears.

All about Birds

Once I looked further into their behavior, I can see that our land has the kind of habitat harrierw want: lightly grazed pastures along with lots of ponds and marshy areas (hooray for me for making our pond, which is fed by a long arroyo that’s usually damp or wet).

Have any of you seen northern harriers on your property? I know that the literature says they don’t breed here, but I do have the right setting, if they want to.