Bird of the Week: Northern Harrier

Photo Courtesy of the National Audubon Society

Photo Courtesy of the National Audubon Society

Species: Northern Harrier, or Circus hudsonius

Family: Accipitridae (Hawks, Eagles, and Kites)

Star sign: Gemini

Rating: 14/10

Ideal Date: Listening to a podcast you’ve never heard of before together.

The Northern Harrier is an odd bird. He’s a member of the family Accipitridae, which contains hawks, eagles, and kites, and is the only American representative of the Circus (Harrier) genus. While he’s no clown, he’s certainly more of a curiosity than the average raptor. Although he soars through the air in broad daylight and snatches up his prey with his talons like the rest of his family, he is one of the few hawks that hunts not just by sight, but by sound!

As the Northern Harrier soars close to the ground, it listens closely for any scurrying little mammals or birds, and once it’s heard its dinner it pounces, dropping from the sky and onto its prey. In this regard, the feathery fellow is more akin to an owl than it is a hawk. It has an owl’s sense of fashion to boot: the Northern Harrier’s flat face is surrounded with a stiff disc that directs sound into its ears, an adaptation which it shares with its nocturnal, hooting relatives! What a cool, well-adapted friend!

The Northern Harrier also has a penchant for excitement. Juveniles practice hunting by pouncing on mouse-sized objects like corn cobs, and when they grow up, male Harriers woo the ladies by doing barrel rolls in midair. Sometimes, when one is feeling particularly dramatic, it will attack bigger prey than its typical rodent and songbird-sized fare — then, to kill their quarry, they hold it underwater and drown it! Wow! That’s a level of brutality you just don’t see every day.

Raptors can be tricky to identify, since they’re usually spotted far away and from below as they soar, but luckily this fearsome friend is fairly distinctive! The Northern Harrier is smaller than a Red-tailed Hawk, with a small hooked beak, long tail, and elegant, narrow wings. When it soars, it does so low to the ground, and always holds its wings above its body in a “V.” Males are bigger with grey backs, white bellies, and black wingtips, while females and juveniles are a warm brown color. But both sexes have the Northern Harrier’s most conspicuous identifying mark: a large white spot on the rump, where the tail meets the body. This owlish oddball is found year-round in the Portland area, flying above wide-open grasslands as it looks and listens for lunch. Maybe if we’re lucky, one will decide to bring the circus to Reed!

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