Beak of the Week – Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius)

Family: Accipitridae

By Jon Piasecki, Houston Audubon Conservation Technician

Northern Harriers are commonly seen gliding low over grassland and marsh habitats throughout most of North America. This species is known to be a year-round resident in parts of the midwestern and western United States. They expand their range to Alaska, Canada, and the northeastern US during the summer breeding season and expand to the southern US, Mexico, and parts of Central and South America in the winter season.

These birds are medium sized hawks with long tails, broad wings, and distinctive white rump patches. The main characteristic that separates Northern Harriers from other hawk species is that they have what is called a “facial disk” similarly to owls. This disc shape helps funnel sound directly to the bird’s ears, allowing it to be much more precise and efficient when hunting small animals while soaring over open habitats. Northern Harriers typically prey on small mammals such as mice and voles but have also been known to feed on reptiles, amphibians and even songbird species.

Northern Harriers build nests on the ground, usually in thick, grassy vegetation. Males may help in bringing nest materials to the location, but typically the female is the one that arranges the materials to form the nest. Northern Harriers will lay a clutch of 4-5 eggs that will take between 28 to 36 days to hatch. Females incubate the eggs while the male will provide food for its mate and its chicks upon hatching. Harrier nests have a variety of potential predators including coyotes, foxes, raccoons and even bird species such as Common Ravens and Great Horned Owls. Both sexes will actively aid in defending the nest during the breeding season.

By this time of the year, many Northern Harriers have already reappeared across the state of Texas. Smith Oaks Sanctuary in High Island or the marshes of Bolivar Peninsula are great places to get a glimpse of these majestic and graceful birds!

 Visit our Bird Gallery to read about other Texas birds! 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s