Naturalist Fact: Northern Harrier

Aside from the blooming Muhley grass and the huge swarms of tree swallows we see in the fall, another exciting seasonal indicator is the return of the Northern Harrier.  These hawks are relatively easy to identify as they swoop low over the marshes, with long wings and a long tail.  A white patch just above the tail is often visible.  Male harriers are a pale silver color, while the females are dark brown and significantly larger than the males.  Interestingly, we tend to see many more females than males on Little St. Simons Island. 

Harriers hunt for a variety of animals including small mammals, birds, and reptiles and even eat carrion occasionally.  Unlike many other birds of prey, these hawks have owl-like facial disks which help them use sound to locate prey.  They also have very soft feathers to aid in quiet flight. 

Their breeding range extends throughout the most northern states and into Canada, where they nest on the ground in dense grass or thick vegetation.  Most birds migrate and spend the winter throughout the southern U.S. and into Central America.  While they have experienced some declines in population, the harrier is not considered a species of high conservation concern.

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