Northern Harrier - Circus cyaneus
Males are pale gray above and white below, with black wing tips. Females are dark brown above and buffy below, with some streaking on the underparts. The immature Northern Harrier appears similar in color to the adult female, but has a cinnamon-colored breast and darker brown back and wings (Bent 1937, Brown and Amadon 1968). All show a distinctive white rump patch at the base of the tail, and have long, narrow wings and tail. Northern Harriers range in length from 17 to 23 inches, and have a wingspan of 38 to 48 inches. Females are larger than males.
MORPHOLOGY AND PLUMAGES: Members of the genus Circus
are slim, medium-sized hawks with long, broad wings and long legs and tails. A characteristic facial ruff gives them an owl-like appearance (Brown and Amadon 1968). The tail is barred. The mean weight of adult female is 529.9 grams (Hamerstrom 1986), total length varies from 48 to 61 centimeters and wingspread ranges from 110 to 137 centimeters (Bildstein 1988). The mean weight of the adult male is 367.4 grams (Hamerstrom 1986), total length ranges from 44 to 51 centimeters, and wingspread varies from 102 to 114 centimeters (Bildstein 1988). Males up to three to four years of age have brown markings dorsally (Bildstein 1988). Immature plumage is retained throughout the first winter into the following spring and, in some cases, summer. During spring and early summer it is difficult to discriminate between immatures and adult females (Bildstein 1988).
VOCALIZATIONS: The call given by adult and immature Northern Harriers when they are alarmed or excited has been described as a rapid chattering, "ke-ke-ke
", or "chek-ek-chek-ek
" (Brown and Amadon 1968). The begging call has been described as a wailing squeal, given by the female to the male, and juveniles to adults when begging for food. This call is also used during courtship by the male and female (Bent 1937, Brown and Amadon 1968, Balfour and MacDonald 1970, Watson 1977). When incubating the female may utter a "quip quip quip
" (Brown and Amadon 1968).
EGGS: Eggs are pale blue at laying and turn white in a few days; brown markings may occur (Hamerstrom 1969).
For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.
Swainson's Hawks have white on the tail feathers rather than the rump, and have shorter wings and tail. Osprey have a white head with brown eye stripes, and are rarely found more than a few miles from large rivers or lakes. Adults and immature Northern Harriers of both sexes have a distinctive, white rump patch.
Western Hemisphere Range
Summary of Observations Submitted for Montana
Number of Observations:
(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version)
Map Help and Descriptions
(direct evidence "B")
(indirect evidence "b")
No evidence of Breeding
(regular observations "W")
(at least one obs. "w")
(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)
Most Northern Harriers depart for their wintering areas by late November, although some winter in Montana. Bozeman area normal migration periods: March 25 to May 5 and September 5 to October 20; peaks April 15 and September 20 (Skaar 1969).
Northern Harriers nest on the ground in dense grass, snowberry-rose patches, and hay fields. They hunt in grasslands, especially near wetlands and agricultural areas. Species occurs widely in valleys in open areas, generally not far from water. In late summer, some birds move upward into high mountain meadows (Skaar 1969, Davis 1961).
Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
- Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
How Associations Were Made
We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for
vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
- Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
- Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
- Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
- Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.
In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.
However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if
point observations were associated with that system.
Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.
The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.
If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.
Suggested Uses and Limitations
Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.
These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: http://mtnhp.org/requests/default.asp
) or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.
Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.
Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.
Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).
Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.
- Adams, R.A. 2003. Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado. 289 p.
- Dobkin, D. S. 1992. Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34. Missoula, MT.
- Foresman, K.R. 2012. Mammals of Montana. Second edition. Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana. 429 pp.
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- Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young. 1999. Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32. 72 p.
- Maxell, B.A. 2000. Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species. Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1. Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana. 161 p.
- Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath. 2004. Amphibians and reptiles of Montana. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.
- Commonly Associated with these Ecological Systems
Forest and Woodland Systems
Human Land Use
Recently Disturbed or Modified
Shrubland, Steppe and Savanna Systems
Sparse and Barren Systems
Wetland and Riparian Systems
- Occasionally Associated with these Ecological Systems
Forest and Woodland Systems
Sparse and Barren Systems
Wetland and Riparian Systems
Small mammals, especially voles, form the majority of their diet. They also eat birds, amphibians, reptiles, and insects. Northern Harriers are the only hawks to use sound to locate prey, much like owls. Their hearing is much more acute than other hawks, although not as acute as owls.
A raptor census in 1944 showed this species comprising 18.5% of the total Montana hawk population (Davis 1961).
Northern Harriers arrive on their breeding areas in March and April. From three to nine eggs are laid in May. The eggs hatch in June and the young can fly at 30 to 35 days. Nesting starts in early May and continues into July (Davis 1961). Courtship in Bozeman area was observed between March 24 to May 3 (Skaar 1969). Young are on the wing in abundance in early August (Davis 1961).
- Literature Cited AboveLegend: View Online Publication
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- Brown, L. and D. Amadon. 1968. Eagles, hawks, and falcons of the world, Vol. 2. Country Life Books. London. 945 pp.
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- Skaar, P.D. 1969. Birds of the Bozeman latilong: a compilation of data concerning the birds which occur between 45 and 46 N. latitude and 111 and 112 W. longitude, with current lists for Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, impinging Montana counties and Yellowstone National Park. Bozeman, MT. 132 p.
- Additional ReferencesLegend: View Online Publication
Do you know of a citation we're missing?
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- Land & Water Consulting, Inc., Missoula, MT., 2002, Montana Dept. of Transportation Wetland Mitigation Monitoring Report, Year 2002: Perry Ranch, Glacier Co., Montana. Proj. No. 130091.020. May 2003. In 2002 Wetland Mitigation Monitoring Reports, Vol. II.
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- Additional Sources of Information Related to "Birds"