Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus)

A male northern harrier hovers above a possible meal hiding along a railroad right-of-way. Males are white underneath with a slate gray or silver back. Click here for more photographs, including a female northern harrier.


OK, aviation buffs, which came first: the harrier or the harrier? The harrier jet, which can take-off and land vertically, was named for this grassland hawk. Harrier actually means "hunter." This bird will systematically hunt a field by flying back and forth in a pattern known as "quartering." When it believes a meal is below, it may hover patiently above.


Note: the white tail patch gives the harrier away even to the novice observer. The white patch is just above the tail on the back. If the bird is flying away from you, it should be very apparent. It is present in all plumages. Harriers also have a facial disk, much like an owl. They are often seen roosting with short-eared owls. Loss of prairie and marsh habitat are probably the reasons northern harriers seldom nest in Illinois anymore. They can, however, be seen during migration.

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 Quick Facts about northern harriers:

A wide variety of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects.


Endangered in Illinois. Very few northern harriers nest in Illinois. Most are seen during migration.

Where do we see them?

Harriers hunt over grassy fields. They are often seen hovering. They can be found where meadow mice are plentiful.


Formerly known as the marsh hawk.