How to Identify a Northern Harrier

How to Identify a Northern Harrier
The northern harrier, also called the hen harrier or marsh hawk, is a large hawk that is found in parts of the United States and Canada. The northern harrier spends its winters in the southern United states and Mexico. The northern harrier has a unique way of hunting compared to other hawks that can help an observer identify it.


Difficulty: Moderate

How to Identify a Northern Harrier

Things You’ll Need:
  • binoculars pocket guide to birds
  • binoculars
  • pocket guide to birds
Step 1
Note the differences between the sexes in the northern harrier. The male has a gray back, upper chest and head with a white belly and black wing tips. The female has a brown and white face, a darker brown shade on its back, and a tan and white chest.
Step 2
Look for a bird that flies with its wings held in a "V" shape. The tail on the northern harrier is long and the wings appear to be rounded and long as well.
Step 3
Watch the sky for a low-flying, large bird. The northern harrier hunts by gliding as low as five feet off the ground where the terrain is devoid of obstacles like trees. The northern harrier swoops down on prey, such as small mammals, it sees as it flies by. With its acute hearing the northern harrier is also capable of detecting sounds made by potential prey.
Step 4
Use binoculars to get a better look at a bird's face to determine if it is a northern harrier. This bird has very stiff feathers around its face arranged in a disc-like pattern similar to that of an owl. The feathers are arranged in this way to give the northern harrier good hearing while in flight, enabling it to hear and find prey moving below.
Step 5
Search for the northern harrier in open areas. Meadows, pastures, golf courses, farmer's fields and wetlands are where you are most likely to find this hawk. These places allow the northern harrier to hunt the way it prefers, by gliding over the countryside close to the ground without hitting a tree or other obstacles

Tips & Warnings

The National Audubon Society Pocket Guide to Familiar Birds of North America contains an excellent picture of the northern harrier to use as a reference should you think you have spotted one.

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