Unlike most hawks, Northern Harriers can use their sense of hearing to help locate prey. Northern Harriers have an owl-like facial disk to help with directional hearing and soft feathers for a quieter flight.
There were 354 probable and confirmed breeding blocks identified during the second Breeding Bird Atlas (McGowan and Corwin 2008) and 355 probable and confirmed breeding blocks identified during the first New York State Breeding Bird Atlas (1980-1985) (Andrle and Carroll 1988). However, these numbers could be deceptive since they are cumulative over several years and the birds occupy large breeding territories (i.e. individuals reported in more than one block). They are widespread in winter, but numbers are highly variable. There is concern about the status of Northern Harrier populations in New York because of the loss of farmland and wetlands throughout the state.
Northern Harrier populations vary with rodent populations, peaking about every five years. Breeding populations appear to be fairly stable when comparing the two breeding bird atlases of New York. During the first Breeding Bird Atlas (1980-1985), 355 probable or confirmed blocks were reported (Andrle and Carroll 1988). During the second Breeding Bird Atlas, probable or confirmed breeding was reported in 354 blocks (McGowan and Corwin 2008). Since Northern Harriers have a large home range, it is possible that individuals were reported in more than one block. Declines were noted by McGowan and Corwin (2008) in the Adirondacks, Coastal Lowlands, St. Lawrence Plains, and Tug Hill Plateau, while the number of reported blocks increased in the Champlain Valley to the northern Hudson Valley, Mohawk Valley, and Appalachian Plateau (McGowan and Corwin 2008). Breeding Bird Survey data show a possible decline of 3.8% per year between 1980 and 2006. Although, these findings were not found to be statistically significant (Sauer et al. 2007). Non-breeding populations appear to be their highest during spring and fall migration (Levine 1998). Wintering populations fluctuate with prey abundance and snow cover, but appear to be fairly stable.
Until about the 1950s, breeding Northern Harriers were considered common throughout the state. Between the 1950s and 1960s the population started to decline for unknown reasons (Andrle and Carroll 1988, Levine 1998). The downward trend may be attributed to habitat loss ranging from reforestation and filling of wetlands to urban and industrial development (Serretino 1992). Although it is not certain, pesticide use may have also played a role in the population decline (Levine 1998). Breeding Bird Survey data show a possible decline of 3.0% per year from 1966 to 2006. Although, these findings were not determined to be statistically significant (Sauer et al. 2007). Wintering populations appear to be fairly stable. Northern Harriers have been known to winter in areas where they are locally extirpated as breeders (Serrentino 1992).
One of the most significant threats to Northern Harrier populations in New York is the loss of suitable grassland habitat. Economic factors have affected the viability of farms in New York. Many farmers have intensified their farming practices, converted hayfields to row crops, or abandoned farming altogether (Andrle and Carroll 1988, Post 2005). Remaining hayfields are often mowed earlier and more frequently to increase production. As a result, the mortality rate of young in those fields is high and sometimes adults are killed during mowing. As farms are abandoned they are lost to development or the land reverts to shrublands and forests. Grasslands are becoming more scattered and isolated thereby reducing connectivity (Post 2005). Another significant threat to Northern Harriers is the loss of wetland habitat by draining, dredging, and filling marshes (Evers 1992 cited in NatureServe 2003). New York State has lost over half of its wetlands since colonization (Tiner 1984 cited in NatureServe 2003). More recently, losses of wetlands in the Lake Plains portion of the state have been offset as agricultural lands revert back to wetlands, although net losses of wetlands in the Hudson Valley continue. Emergent marshes, which constitute only five percent of the state's 2.5 million acres, have declined overall. Equally important, the quality of remaining habitat is often degraded by fragmentation, exotic plants, and nutrient enrichment (Riexinger, personal communication, October 31, 2003). Ditching of salt marshes for mosquito control may have negative effects on breeding populations (Serrentino and England 1989).
Large areas of open habitat in breeding and wintering areas need to be maintained in order to ensure the persistence of this species in New York. Potential management practices include burning, mowing, and plowing of fields after the breeding season. Use Landowner Incentive Program funds to conserve privately-owned grasslands. Coordinate conservation efforts with other agencies and organizations and initiate an outreach program (Post 2005). It may also be possible to design a management plan that would include other threatened species with similar habitat requirements, such as the Short-eared Owl.
Implement accurate and standardized survey methods to determine the population size in New York. Data should be collected on hunting habitat and roost site selection in various habitats such as salt marshes, freshwater wetlands, agricultural habitats, and maritime heaths. Determine the sizes of hunting ranges of birds during the breeding and non-breeding season at sites with varying densities and habitat types. Determine the causes of breeding failure and mortality in young and adults. Conduct studies on the techniques used to maintain early successional habitats. Comparisons between treatments and the cost-effectiveness of each treatment are especially needed. Determine the amount and type of disturbances that breeding Northern Harriers will tolerate. In coastal areas, determine the effect of salt marsh ditching on populations and their major prey species.
Northern Harriers use a wide range of open grasslands, shrubland, and salt and freshwater marshes (Andrle and Carroll 1988, McGowan and Corwin 2008). Nests are placed on the ground, usually in dense cover.
Northern Harriers are confirmed breeders in the western Great Lakes plain, open habitats of the Adirondacks, western Finger Lakes, Long Island, and the Hudson, Saint Lawrence, and Lake Champlain valleys. The winter range is similar depending on prey abundance and snow cover.
Breeding: In North America, the breeding range of the Northern Harrier ranges from northern Alaska to northern Saskatchewan and southern Quebec; south to northern Baja California, southern Texas, southern Missouri, West Virginia, southeastern Virginia, and North Carolina (and formerly Florida). They breed rarely or erratically south of the North American breeding range (MacWhirter and Bildstein 1996 cited in NatureServe 2003). In Eurasia, Northern Harriers can be found from the British Isles, Scandinavia, northern Russia and Siberia south to the Mediterranean region, southern Russia, Turkestan, Amurland, Ussuriland, Sakhalin, and the Kurile Islands (AOU 1983 cited in NatureServe 2003). The breeding range is large but often highly discontinuous. Non-breeding: During the non-breeding season, Northern Harriers are found in North America from southern Canada or the northern contiguous United States south through the United States, Middle America, and the Antilles to northern Columbia, Venezuela, and Barbados. They are considered casual or accidental in Hawaii (AOU 1983 cited in NatureServe 2003, MacWhirter and Bildstein 1996 cited in NatureServe 2003). In North America, Northern Harriers winter in the largest numbers in the Great Basin and central and southern Great Plains (Root 1988 cited in NatureServe 2003). The coastal areas of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia support the highest number of wintering birds in the Northeast (National Audubon Society 1971-74, 1982-83, 1985-87 cited in NatureServe 2003). In Eurasia, they are found from the British Isles, southern Scandinavia, and southern Japan south to northwestern Africa, Asia Minor, India, Burma, eastern China, and the Ryukyu Islands (AOU 1983 cited in NatureServe 2003).
The Northern Harrier is a slim, medium-sized hawk with long, broad wings and long legs and tail. There are two features that are useful in identifying this species: a facial ruff that gives them an owl-like appearance and a white rump that is visible when in flight. Northern Harriers are known to fly low over fields and to hover in flight over prey. Sexes are dimorphic. Adult females are dark brown above and buffy below. There is some streaking in the underparts. The tail is barred. Males differ in that they are gray above and white below. Underparts have reddish spots. Wingtips are black. Males have brown dorsal markings until three to four years of age. Immature Northern Harriers are similar in appearence to females except they have a cinnamon-colored breast and the back and wings are darker brown. Immature plumage is retained until the following spring or summer. When laid, eggs are pale blue, but turn white after a few days. Some eggs have brown markings. Nests are built of grasses and sticks on the ground in thick vegetation of grassland or marshes. Northern Harriers have a few vocalizations that are used in various situations. In general, the call is a weak, nasal whistle ("pee, pee, pee"). A "wailing squeal" is used by females to males and young to adults when begging for food. The same call can be heard during courtship. Incubating females may use a "quip, quip, quip" call.
During the breeding season, males hunt farther away from the nest site than females. Northern Harriers are known to congregate during the winter months in open habitats with high rodent populations. They usually abandon wintering grounds with deep snow cover. They are known to share wintering grounds with other bird species, such as Short-eared Owls and Rough-legged Hawks.
Northern Harriers prey upon rodents and small birds.
Northern Harriers are found in New York throughout the year. During the breeding season, the best time to look for Northern Harriers is May through June. Concentrations of birds may be found in suitable habitat with abundant prey during the winter months.
The time of year you would expect to find Northern Harrier active and reproducing in New York.
Circus hudsonius (Linnaeus, 1766)
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Information for this guide was last updated on: June 17, 2020
Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2023. Online Conservation Guide for Circus hudsonius. Available from: https://guides.nynhp.org/northern-harrier/. Accessed March 31, 2023.