harriers birds

Harriers Birds: A Comprehensive Guide


Harriers are a group of hawks that form a part of the subfamily Circinae. These birds have unique physical characteristics, distinguished hunting behavior, and habitat preferences which contribute to their ecological role as predators in meadows and marshes.

Fast Facts About Harriers

Harriers possess some key facts and notable features that distinguish them from other birds of prey. They are medium-sized raptors with long, broad wings, and a long, rounded tail, along with a flat, owl-like face and a small, sharply hooked bill.

Taxonomy of Harriers

The genus Circus, which houses harriers, was introduced by Bernard Germain de Lacépède. The name Circus derives from the Ancient Greek word for circling flight, a behavior that defines these raptors.

Understanding Ring-tails

The term “ring-tail” is used by birders to refer to the juveniles and females of certain harrier species when they cannot be identified to an exact species. Some examples of ring-tail harriers are Montagu’s harrier, hen harrier, and pallid harrier.

Species of Harriers

The genus Circus is diverse and includes 16 species that are characterized by their scientific names, geographical distributions, and migratory patterns. Some examples are the Western marsh harrier, Hen harrier, Northern harrier, and Black harrier.

Fossils of Harriers

Two prehistoric harrier species have been identified: Eyles’s harrier and Wood harrier. The subfamily Circinae also includes other genera like Polyboroides and Geranospiza.

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Detailed Overview of Harrier Species

Each species within the Circus genus has unique characteristics and behaviors. Here’s a look at some of the species:

Northern Harriers

Northern Harriers are slender, medium-sized raptors known for their distinctive gray and white coloration in males, and brown coloration in females and immatures. They are known for their unique flight pattern and hunting behavior.

Montagu’s Harrier

Montagu’s Harrier is a bird of prey found in Europe and Asia. Known for its elegant flight and distinctive plumage, it often hovers over open grasslands and wetlands while hunting small mammals and birds.

Papuan Harrier

Endemic to New Guinea and nearby islands, the Papuan Harrier is distinguished by its unique plumage pattern and diet primarily composed of small mammals, reptiles, and birds.

Northern or Hen Harrier

The Northern or Hen Harrier is found in the northern parts of Eurasia and North America. It is recognized for its distinctive shape and low-flight hunting style.

Western Marsh Harrier

The Western Marsh Harrier is a raptor species adapted to hunting in marshy habitats. It inhabits wetland areas across Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Eastern Marsh Harrier

The Eastern Marsh Harrier is a species found in East Asia’s wetland habitats. It shares similar characteristics with other marsh harriers, such as its hunting style and diet.

African Marsh Harrier

The African Marsh Harrier is endemic to Africa and has a specialized diet consisting mainly of amphibians, particularly frogs.

Swamp Harrier

The Swamp Harrier, also known as the Australasian Harrier, is found in Australia, New Zealand, and nearby islands. It inhabits various habitats and preys on small mammals, birds, and reptiles.

Madagascar Marsh Harrier

Endemic to Madagascar, this harrier feeds on a diverse range of prey, including small mammals, birds, and reptiles.

Réunion Harrier

Found on the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, the Réunion Harrier shares similar feeding habits with the Madagascar Marsh Harrier.

Long-winged Harrier

The Long-winged Harrier is distributed across South America. It has long, slender wings and a distinctive flight pattern.

Spotted Harrier

Native to Australia and nearby regions, the Spotted Harrier is known for its striking plumage, including distinct spots on its feathers.

Black Harrier

The Black Harrier is a rare and endangered species endemic to South Africa. It is known for its dark plumage and graceful flight.

Cinereous Harrier

The Cinereous Harrier is a large species found in South America. It prefers open habitats such as grasslands and marshes.

Pallid Harrier

The Pallid Harrier is a migratory species that breeds in Eurasia and winters in Africa and South Asia. It is known for its pale plumage and agile flight.

Pied Harrier

The Pied Harrier is native to Asia. It has a striking black-and-white plumage pattern, with the male having a distinctive white head.

Eyles’ Harrier

The Eyles’ Harrier was an extinct species that once inhabited New Zealand. It was a generalist predator and an example of island gigantism.

Through their distinct characteristics, hunting behaviors, and their role in the ecosystem, Harriers add to the rich diversity of bird species across the globe.


Q1: What is the derivation of the name “Harrier”?

A1: The name “Harrier” comes from the Ancient Greek word for “circling flight”. This is a reference to the hunting behavior of these birds, which involves flying low over the ground and circling above their prey before swooping down for the kill.

Q2: What is a “ring-tail”?

A2: The term “ring-tail” is used by birders to refer to the juveniles and females of certain harrier species when they cannot be identified to an exact species. Examples of ring-tail harriers include Montagu’s harrier, hen harrier, and pallid harrier.

Q3: How many species of harriers are there?

A3: There are 16 known species within the genus Circus, which includes harriers.

Q4: Are there any prehistoric harrier species?

A4: Yes, there were at least two prehistoric harrier species: Eyles’s harrier and Wood harrier. These species are now extinct.

Q5: What are some notable characteristics of the Northern Harrier?

A5: Northern Harriers are slender, medium-sized raptors with long, fairly broad wings and a long, rounded tail. They have a flat, owl-like face and a small, sharply hooked bill. Harriers often fly with their wings held in a dihedral, or V-shape, above the horizontal. All Northern Harriers have a white rump patch that is obvious in flight.

Q6: Where can I find more information about harriers?

A6: Further information about harriers can be found in scholarly articles, bird guides, and encyclopedias. Internet Bird Collection and Encyclopædia Britannica provide great resources online, and Wikimedia Commons hosts media related to the genus Circus.


Harriers are a fascinating group of birds of prey, distinguished by their characteristic flight patterns, diverse species, and intriguing behaviors. With 16 known species ranging from the widely-distributed Northern Harrier to the uniquely endemic Papuan Harrier, these raptors offer a deep well of interest for both casual bird lovers and serious ornithologists. Despite threats from habitat loss and climate change, the harriers continue to thrive in a wide range of habitats across the globe, serving a crucial role in maintaining the balance of their respective ecosystems. As we continue to study and understand these birds, we enhance not only our appreciation for nature’s diversity but also our commitment to its protection.

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