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Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus)

Northern Harrier


  • The northern harrier (formerly marsh hawk) is a slim hawk about 50 centimetres (20 inches) long.


  • Is most easily recognized by a prominent white rump patch.
  • Unlike the rest of the hawk family, male and female northern harriers differ noticeably in their plumage.
    • The male of this species has pale grey upperparts and throat.
    • Female plumage is dark grey-brown blotched with rust.
  • Both male and female northern harriers have cream to white under-parts lightly streaked with brown, a banded tail, and a white rump patch.
  • When in flight, the wings are tilted slightly upwards.
  • When hunting, the northern harrier glides low over fields and marshes. While gliding, this hawk tilts from side to side, giving it an unsteady appearance.

  • The northern harrier breeds throughout most of North America.
  • It winters in the southern states of Central America.
  • In Alberta, the harrier is found in most natural regions, being most common in the grassland and parkland.
Natural History


  • The northern harrier is common in and around marshes and wet meadows.


  • Prey includes:
    • ground squirrels
    • large insects
    • mice
Reproduction and Growth

Breeding Behaviour

  • Nests of reeds and grasses are built on the ground, usually in a protective cover of tall grasses or shrubs.
  • Four to six eggs are laid annually.
Conservation and Management


The northern harrier is classified as Sensitive in the General Status of Alberta Wild Species report. See:


  • Numbers for this species are declining over much of North America; maintenance of wetland habitats for waterfowl is beneficial.

Current management

  • Like all birds of prey in Alberta, the northern harrier is protected by the provincial Wildlife Act and classified as a non-game species.
Similar Species
  • Bald Eagle

    Immature bald eagles can be mistaken for golden eagles, but the golden eagle has feathers down to the toe, unlike the bald eagle which has feathers only half-way down the legs.


Page Information

Updated: Jan 8, 2014