Formerly known as the marsh hawk, the northern harrier used to be commonly seen flying low over marshes and grasslands with its wings at a slightly more acute angle than other hawks, even more than turkey vultures. It also seems to tip back and forth from one side to another as if surveying the ground one eye at a time. It is the most sexually dimorphic of all the hawks. The male and female look alike in only two ways, their long lean body, wings and tail, and their notable facial disk. Harriers are not placed in any of the three hawk families, perhaps because they are more like owls than other hawks. If their facial disk has the same function as in owls, it would suggest that they rely more on hearing than other hawks.
Like all raptors, the male is smaller than the female, though both are quite elegant. The male is a strikingly beautiful bird, more white than most hawks. It has a light gray head back, throat and upper chest, a white rump and white chest and underparts, which are striped slightly with cinnamon. The underwings are white and uppers are gray. Wing tips are black. The tail is dark gray on top, whitish below with somewhat noticeable bars. The female shares the white rump but is mostly brown and whitish striped all over, darker on the head and back, lightest on the stomach. It can also have a striking white facial disk, and its tail is brown with dark bars. Immature birds are like the females.
The northern harrier's diet is mostly small rodents. It also takes locusts, frogs, snakes and other denizens of the marsh and fields. It nests on the ground, and is therefore very vulnerable to disturbance from casual human activity. It is in serious decline, a fact less studied than the decline of other hawks, and every effort must be made to protect this elegant bird. It is very widespread but no longer common anywhere, nesting over most of Northern North America and migrating as far as about one hundred miles into South America. The population of the southern US does not migrate but there is a great individuality of habits among these birds. I saw a big female chasing pigeons in January as far north as Upper Jay, NY, and they are regularly seen in the February bird watch in Fort Edward, hundreds of miles north of their normal winter range according to the map.
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