Northern harrier
Circus cyaneus
ITIS Species Code:   175430         NatureServ Element Code:   ABNKC11010
NatureServe Global Rank: 
NatureServe State (NC) Rank: 
Federal Status: 
NC State Status: 
Southern Blue Ridge:  n/a Southern Piedmont:  17 South Atl. Coastal Plain:  n/a
Land Unit

US Fish & Wildlife Service
US Forest Service
US National Park Service
US Department of Defense
NC State Parks
NC University System
NC Wildlife Res. Com.
NC Forest Service
NC Div. of Coastal Mgmt.
Local Governments
Non-Governmental Org.
Other Public Lands
Private Lands

GAP Status 1-2
All Protected Lands




% of Dist. on
Prot. Lands

46.5 %
0.4 %
15.0 %
22.9 %
0.5 %
0.0 %
10.1 %
0.0 %
1.7 %
2.8 %
2.8 %
< 0.1 %
< 0.1 %

72.4 %
% of Dist. on
All Lands

15.3 %
0.1 %
4.9 %
7.5 %
0.2 %
0.0 %
3.3 %
0.0 %
0.5 %
< 0.1 %
0.9 %
< 0.1 %
67.1 %

23.8 %
Clark (1987) states that these birds are '. . . fairly common, breeding from mid-latitudes of United States north to the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska'. Hamel (1992) describes an accidental breeding range for Harriers in the northern coastal plain, sandhills, and the barrier islands of North Carolina. Potter et al (1980) states that 'on very rare occasions Marsh Hawks may breed in northeastern North Carolina.' A possible nest was noted on an island off coastal N.C. in 1981 (Palmer 1988).

Prairie, meadow and swamp are generally agreed to be the typical breeding/foraging habitat of harriers. Bent 1937, Ehrlich et al 1988, Hamel 1992, Harrison 1975, Snyder & Snyder 1991. Johnsgard (1990) goes on to elaborate 'grasslands, marshy habitats, open-country, medium to tall prairie grasslands and associated wetlands, fresh and saltwater marshes, swamps and bogs, wet meadows, logged over or burned woodlands, open muskegs and tundra.' Ponds, lakes and slow moving streams that are bordered by 'lush growth', as well as cultivated fields (e.g. hay, wheat, rye, sugar beet, alfalfa, sweet clover ), and drier portions of estuaries, either brackish, fresh, or saltwater, that are grown to sedges, grasses, cattails or brush are often utilized. Palmer 1988

Johnsgards (1990) summized that although harrier lean toward wet habitats, dry nest sites are preferred. Brown and Amadon (1968) report that nests are built on the ground and 'often in marshy places and commonly in low shrubby vegetation, tall weeds or reeds rather than very open sites. Palmer (1988) has a similar report of nests on 'grassy ground, among low brush or close beside a bush or tree or in mixed herbaceous/woody growth in damp places and often near water.' Most literature reports the nest in some type of vegetation , i.e. grasses, sedges, willows, forbs, shrubs.


BREEDING: Marshes, meadows, grasslands, and cultivated fields. Perches on ground or on stumps or posts. Nests on the ground, commonly near low shrubs, in tall weeds or reeds, sometimes in bog; or on top of low bush above water, or on knoll of dry ground, or on higher shrubby ground near water, or on dry marsh vegetation. Breeding habitat in the northeastern U.S. includes abandoned fields, upland maritime heaths, wet hayfields, salt marshes, and cattail marshes (Serrentino 1992).

In the Northeast, a wide range of open habitats and vegetative associations are used for breeding. Nests are placed on the ground, usually in dense cover. Nesting sites have included abandoned fields in dense stands of meadowsweet (SPIRAEA LATIFOLIA) or red-osier dogwood (CORNUS STOLONIFERA) in New Hampshire (Serrentino 1987), upland maritime heaths comprised of northern bayberry (MYRICA PENSYLVANICA), black huckleberry (GAYLUSSACIA BACCATA) and wild rose (ROSA spp.) in Massachusetts (Holt and Melvin 1986), and in wet hayfields dominated by reed canary grass (PHALARIS ARUNDINACEA) in Vermont (Laughlin and Kibbe 1985). Breeding sites in New Jersey saltmarshes on the Atlantic coast have been found in pure stands of common reed (PHRAGMITES AUSTRALIS), as well as in salt hay grass (SPARTINA PATENS) and smooth cordgrass (SPARTINA ALTERNIFLORA) (Dunne 1984).

On Long Island, nests were found in stands of common reed and poison ivy (TOXICODENDRON RADICANS) (England 1989). Other nesting habitats in the Northeast are cattail marshes (Laughlin and Kibbe 1985, Serrentino 1989), bogs (Hall 1983, Laughlin and Kibbe 1985, Andrle and Carroll 1988), native grassland prairies (Genoways and Brenner 1985), and dwarf conifer forest (England 1989). In other regions of North America, harriers nest in a variety of upland and wetland habitats such as willow (SALIX spp.) swales and meadows (Hamerstrom and Kopeny 1981), pure stands of blackberry (RUBUS spp.) (Toland 1985), hayfields and cropland (Duebbert and Lokemoen 1977, Follen 1986) and undisturbed grass/legume vegetation (Duebbert and Lokemoen 1977).

NON-BREEDING: In the Northeast, winter in the greatest numbers in the saltmarshes of the Atlantic coast, with the winter population exhibiting a tendency to increase from north to south (National Audubon Society 1971-74, 1982-83, 1985-87). Although harriers appear to prefer coastal regions in the Northeast, they will range inland during the winter when suitable open habitats are available (Root 1988), though avoiding the mountainous interior. Other habitats used by harriers during the nonbreeding season in both coastal and inland areas include agricultural fields (croplands, hayfields, and pastures), abandoned fields, and freshwater wetlands. Elsewhere in North America, wintering harriers have been observed in habitats similar to those in the Northeast (Craighead and Craighead 1956, Bildstein 1978, Temeles 1986, Collopy and Bildstein 1987, Littlefield and Thompson 1987). WINTER ROOSTS: Communal roosting flocks may be formed during the nonbreeding season, beginning in October and often breaking up at the onset of spring migration (Bildstein 1979). Harriers roost on the ground in open habitats such as agricultural and abandoned fields, and saltmarshes (Weller et al. 1955, Mumford and Danner 1974, Bildstein 1979, Evans 1982, Bosakowski 1983). The same roost may be used for several nights or for several months (Bent 1937, Craighead and Craighead 1956). The number of birds using roosts varies from several to 60 individuals, and roosts may be shared with short-eared owls (ASIO FLAMMEUS). Roost sites may be abandoned during periods of flooding or heavy snow (Bildstein 1979) or when prey becomes depleted in areas adjacent to roosts (Craighead and Craighead 1956, Bildstein 1979).

HUNTING HABITAT: Selection of hunting habitat is affected by several parameters including proximity to the nest site (Schipper 1977, Martin 1987, Serrentino 1987), sex and age of the individual (Schipper et al. 1975, Bildstein 1978, Marquiss 1980), prey abundance and availability (Schipper et al. 1975), vegetation structure (Schipper et al. 1975, Temeles 1986), and the presence of competitors (Temeles 1986). During the breeding season, females often hunt in areas adjacent to the nest site (Schipper 1977, Martin 1987, Serrentino 1987). Males hunt farther from the nest where they may encounter habitat types different than those located adjacent to nests.

Differences in habitat selection have been observed among adult females, adult males, and juveniles. In Ohio, intersexual differences in habitat selection were related to prey choice (Bildstein 1978). Females were observed significantly more often than males in fallow fields where small mammals were common. Adult males preferred corn stubble where avian prey was predominant. Males took more birds than females (40% vs. 4%), while females were principally small mammal specialists (93% for females versus 56% for males). Unsexed juveniles relied primarily on mammals.

Harriers select habitats on the basis of the availability and abundance of prey species. In the Netherlands, harriers preyed upon common voles (MICROTUS ARVALIS) in agricultural areas when voles were accessible and populations were high (Schipper et al. 1975). However, when voles became concealed by heavy snowfall, harriers hunted in reedbeds where avian prey was common.

During the nonbreeding season harriers may defend hunting territories (Temeles 1986). In California, females defended hunting territories against other females and males, and aggressively excluded males from preferred hunting habitats such as fallow fields. The substantial size difference between male and female harriers is probably responsible for female dominance of males.

Occupied Landcover Map Units:
Code NameDescription NC Natural Heritage Program Equivalent
3 Tidal Marsh Fresh and brackish tidal marshes, including cord grass, wild rice, sawgrass and needlerush alliances. Brackish Marsh, Interdune pond, Maritime wet grassland
124 Maritime Scrubs and Tidal Shrublands Coastal shrubs including wax-myrtle, swamp rose, alder, yaupon, and greenbriar. Maritime Shrubs, Salt Shrub
375 Hypersaline coastal salt flats Tidal flats within salt marshes, including saltmeadow cordgrass or sea-purslane dominated alliances. Salt Marsh
372 Interdune Herbaceous Wetlands Dune swales with permanently flooded to intermittently exposed hydrology. Species composition depends on salinity and can include cut grass, spike-rush, mosquito fern, and hornwort. Interdune Pond, Maritime Wet Grasslands
371 Maritime Grasslands Dune grass community consisting of sea oats and beach grasses. Dune grass, Maritime dry grassland
380 Coastal Plain Fresh Water Emergent Emergent vegetation in fresh water seepage bogs, ponds and riverbeds of the coastal plain. Includes alliances dominated by sedges, eelgrass, as well as cane found in unforested cane-brakes. Small Depression Pond, Sandhill Seep, Floodplain Pool, Unforested Floodplain Canebrake, Riverscour Prairies, Vernal Pools
205 Agricultural Pasture/Hay and Natural Herbaceous Farm fields used for pasture grass or hay production, as well as old fields dominated by native and exotic grasses. No equivalent
View Entire Landcover Legend
Additional Spatial Constraints:
Exclude all area outside of known range.
Exclude areas of intensive human activity including moderately to highly developed landscapes.
Schipper, W. J. A., L. S. Buurma, and P. H. Bossenbroek. 1975. Comparative study of hunting behavior of wintering hen harriers CIRCUS CYANEUS and marsh harriers CIRCUS AERUGINOSUS. Ardea 63:1-29.

Schipper, W. J. A. 1977. Hunting in three European harriers (CIRCUS) during the breeding season. Ardea 65:53-72.

Hamerstrom, F., and M. Kopeny. 1981. Harrier nest-site/vegetation. Raptor Res. 15:86-8.

Bosakowski, T. 1983. Density and roosting habits of northern harriers wintering in the hackensack Meadowlands, New Jersey. Records New Jersey Birds 9:50-4.

Titus, K., and M. R. Fuller. 1990. Recent trends in counts of migrant hawks from northeastern North America. Journal of Wildlife Management 54:463-470.

Kirk, D.A., D. Hussell, and E. Dunn. 1994/95. Raptor population status and trends in Canada. Bird Trends (Canadian Wildlife Service) 4:2-9.

Bent, A.C. 1937. Life histories of North American birds of prey. Part 1. Bull. U.S. Natl. Mus. 137. 409 pp.

Craighead, J. J., and F. C. Craighead, Jr. 1956. Hawks, Owls and Wildlife. The Stackpole Company, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the Wildlife Management Institute, Washington, D.C.

Snyder, N.F.R. and H.A. Snyder. 1991. Birds of prey: natural history and conservation of North American raptors. Stillwater, Minnesota: Voyageur Press. 224 p.

Ehrlich, P.R., D.S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1992. Birds in jeopardy:the imperiled and extinct birds of the United States and Canada, including Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California. 259 pp.

Hamel, P. B. 1992. The land manager's guide to the birds of the south. The Nature Conservancy, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. 367 pp + several appendices.

Herkert, J. R., editor. 1992. Endangered and threatened species of Illinois:status and distribution. Vol. 2:Animals. Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board. iv + 142 pp.

Fisher, A.K. 1893. The hawks and owls of the United States in their relation to agriculture. Washington U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Bull. no. 6. 210 pp.

England, M. 1989. The breeding biology and status of the northern harrier (CIRCUS CYANEUS) on Long Island, New York. Long Island University, Greenvale, New York. M.S. thesis. 123 pp.

Bildstein, K. L. 1978. Behavioral ecology of red-tailed hawks (BUTEO JAMAICENSIS), rough-legged hawks (BUTEO LAGOPUS), northern harriers (CIRCUS CYANEUS), American kestrels (FALCO SPARVERIUS) and other paptorial birds wintering in southcentral Ohio. Ohio

Hands, H.M., R.D. Drobney, and M.R. Ryan. 1989. Status of the northern harrier in the northcentral United States. Missouri Coop. Fish Wildl. Res. Unit Rep. 18 pp.

Mumford, R. E., and C. R. Danner. 1974. An Indiana marsh hawk roost. Indiana Audubon Quart. 52:96-8.

Holt, D.W., and S.M. Melvin. 1986. Population dynamics, habitat use, and management needs of the short-eared owl in Massachusetts:summary of 1985 research. Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildife, Natural Heritage Program, Boston, Massachusetts.

Serrentino, P. 1992. Northern harrier, CIRCUS CYANEUS. Pages 89-117 in K. J. Schneider and D. M. Pence, editors. Migratory nongame birds of management concern in the Northeast. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Newton Corner, Massachusetts. 400 pp.

Duebbert, H.G., and J.T. Lokemoen. 1977. Upland nesting of American bitterns, marsh hawks, and short-eared owls. Prairie Naturalist 9:33-40.

Weller, M. J., J. C. Adams, and B. H. Rose. 1955. Winter roosts of marsh hawks ans short-eared owls in cental Missouri. Wilson Bulletin 67:189-93.

Bildstein, K. L. 1979. Fluctuations in the number of northern harriers (CIRCUS CYANEUS) at communal roosts in south central Ohio. Raptor Res. 13:40-6.

Hall, G.A. 1983. West Virginia birds:distribution and ecology. Spec. Publ. Carnegie Mus. Nat. Hist. No. 7, Pittsburgh. 180 pp.

Brown, L. and D. Amadon. 1968. Eagles, Hawks, and Falcons of the World. McGraw-Hill, NY.

Serrentino, P. 1987. The breeding ecology and behavior of northern harriers in Coos County, New Hampshire. University of Rhode Island, Kingston, Rhode Island. M.S. thesis. 142 pp.

Dunne, P. 1984. 1983 Northern Harrier breeding survey in coastal New Jersey. NJ Audubon Society. Records of New Jersey Birds 10(1):3-5.

Harrison, H.H. 1975. A field guide to bird's nests in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. 257 p.

Potter, E. F., J. F. Parnell, and R. P. Teulings. 1980. Birds of the Carolinas. Univ. North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill. 408 pp.

Terres, J.K. 1980. The Audubon Society encyclopedia of North American birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Evans, D. L. 1982. Status reports on twelve raptors. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Special Scientific Report No. 238. 68 pp.

Toland, B. 1985. Nest site selection, productivity, and food habits of northern harriers in southwest Missouri. Nat. Areas J. 5:22-7.

American Ornithologists' Union (AOU), Committee on Classification and Nomenclature. 1983. Check-list of North American Birds. Sixth Edition. American Ornithologists' Union, Allen Press, Inc., Lawrence, Kansas.

Follen, D.G., Sr. 1986. Harriers, 1984, a reproductive disaster. Passenger Pigeon 48:17-20.

Simmons, R., B. MacWhirter, P. Barnard, and G.L. Hansen. 1986. The influence of microtines on polygyny, age, and provisioning of breeding Northern Harriers:a 5-year study. Canadian Journal of Zoology 64:2447-2456.

Temeles, E. J. 1986. Reversed sexual size dimorphism:efffect on resource defense and foraging behavior of nonbreeding northern harriers. Auk 103:70-8.

Genoways, H. H., and F. J. Brenner, editors. 1985. Species of special concern in Pennsylvania. Spec. Publ. Carnegie Mus. of Nat. Hist. No. 11.

Laughlin, S. B., and D. P. Kibbe, editors. 1985. The atlas of breeding birds of Vermont. University Press of New England, Hanover Vermont. 456 pp.

Hamerstrom, F. 1986. Harrier, hawk of the marshes. Smithsonian Inst. Press, Washington, D.C. 172 pp.

Hamel, P. B. 1986. Bachman's warbler. A species in peril. Smithsonian Inst. Press, Blue Ridge Summit, PA. 109 pp.

Collopy, M. W., and K. L. Bildstein. 1987. Foraging behavior of northern harriers wintering in southeastern saltand freshwater marshes. Auk 104:11-16.

Pendleton, B. A. Giron, et al. 1987. Raptor management techniques manual. National Wildlife Federation, Sci. and Tech. Ser. No. 10. 420 pp.

Andrle, R.F., and J.R. Carroll. 1988. The atlas of breeding birds in New York State. Cornell Univ., Ithaca, New York. 551 pp.

Littlefield, C. D., and S. P. Thompson. 1987. Winter habitat preferences of northern harriers on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon. Oregon Birds 13:156-64.

Martin, J. W. 1987. Behavior and habitat use of breeding northern harriers in southwestern Idaho. Raptor Res. 21:57-66.

Ehrlich, P.R., D.S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder's handbook:a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Shuster, Inc., New York. xxx + 785 pp.

Palmer, R. S., editor. 1988. Handbook of North American birds. Vol. 4. [Diurnal raptors, part 1]. Yale University Press, New Haven. vii + 433 pp.

Root, T. 1988. Atlas of wintering North American birds:An analysis of Christmas Bird Count data. University of Chicago Press. 336 pp.

Byrd, M.A., and D.W. Johnston. 1991. Birds. Pages 477-537 in K. Terwilliger, coordinator. Virginia's endangered species:proceedings of a symposium. McDonald and Woodward Publ. Co., Blacksburg, Virginia.

Stiles, F.G., and A.F. Skutch. 1989. A guide to the birds of Costa Rica. Comstock Publ. Associates, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York. 511 pp.

Johnsgard, P.A. 1990. Hawks, eagles, and falcons of North America. Smithsonian Inst. Press, Washington, D.C. xvi + 403 pp.

10 March 2005
This data was compiled and/or developed by the North Carolina GAP Analysis Project.

For more information please contact them at:
NC-GAP Analysis Project
Dept. of Zoology, NCSU
Campus Box 7617
Raleigh, NC 27695-7617
(919) 513-2853