The Marsh Hawk–our only harrier

The Marsh Hawk is different from almost all other hawks in many ways. It hunts low to the ground, the male and female are of different colours, it makes its nest on the ground, and it lays more eggs than other hawks.
This is a fairly common hawk in Northern Ontario. In fact, it is quite common in most of Canada and down into a large part of the United States. It also is present in the northern parts of Europe and Asia.
In the world, there are only 10 species in this grouping, and they are all very similar. The proper name for our hawk is the Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus).
You may see birds of quite different colours. The adult male is somewhat bluey-grey while the adult female is generally a mottled brown. And the young are quite reddish until they reach about the third year.
But all show a very distinctive white rump.
All harriers also have the same habit of hunting, and it is quite different from that of most hawks. They always hunt in open areas (marshes, beaver meadows, pasture lands, etc.), and they hunt low to the ground (only a few feet up).
They move fairly slowly, flapping and gliding with wings in a shallow V. When a mouse is spotted, the legs come straight down, claws fully spread.
They live mainly on mice, rats, small birds, frogs, snakes, and insects but they can master larger animals, such as grouse, bobwhites, muskrats, ducks, and so on
Flying, for this bird, is quite a well-developed art. For catching food, it flaps a bit and then glides–sometimes for several rods. It will do this for hours, and miles, in a painstaking, methodical search of the flatlands below it.
Courting flights, however, are an entirely different matter. He will go up 60 feet or more, then come down in a very fast dive. Just before he hits the ground, he pulls up. A few lazy wingbeats and he is away up again.
He may go straight up and then fall backwards–a real aerial demonstration. This seems to be quite impressive, especially to female harriers.
He may do these stunts up to 30 or 40 times.
Harriers are very vigorous about defending their own territory and there are many accounts of people being attacked, particularly if a nest is near. Many a person has been hit on the head–often without knowing why.
They will attack other types of hawks, as well as any other big birds that happen to wander too close.
As we already noted, this hawk nests on the ground. It makes a substantial, well-built nest of grass, weeds, and sticks. The usual clutch of eggs is from five to 9 or 10. This is way more than the usual two-three of most hawks.
Incubation takes about a month, and the young don’t all hatch at the same time.
After they can fly, the young hunt right along with their parents until migration time in the fall, when everybody goes their own way.
For many years, the Marsh Hawk was shot on sight by anyone who had a farm, or kept chickens. But although they do sometimes take young chickens or other poultry, by far the greater part of their diet is made up of mice and other pests.
This bird is estimated to be about 90 percent beneficial.
Our Northern Harrier is a useful bird, as well as being extremely graceful. Ducks Unlimited, by re-establishing large areas of wetland, has restored it to much if its original habitat.

Posted in Uncategorized