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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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Forest and Rangeland Birds of the United States

Natural History and Habitat Use

Northern Harrier -- Circus cyaneus
(formerly Marsh Hawk)

RANGE: Breeds from northern Alaska to southern Quebec and Newfoundland south to Baja California, southern Arizona, southern and eastern Texas, southern Illinois, and southeastern Virginia. Winters from Alaska (casually) and southern British Columbia east to South Dakota, southern Ontario, and Massachusetts south through the United States to South America.

STATUS: Common; populations are increasing slightly in the Southwest, and declining in the Northeast and Midwest.

HABITAT: Typically inhabits sloughs, wet meadows, fresh or salt marshes, swamps, prairies and plains. Generally roosts on the ground or perches on very low objects such as fence posts or tree stumps. During the non-breeding season, inhabits areas far removed from nesting habitat. Roosts in undisturbed fields or marshes in winter.

SPECIAL HABITAT REQUIREMENTS: Open country with herbaceous or low woody vegetation for concealing nests.

NEST: Nests singly or sometimes semi-colonially, on the ground in a variety of sites, but usually near or above water. Nests in tall grass in open fields, in swamps with low shrubs and clearings, sometimes built up over water on a stick foundation, sedge tussock, or willow clump, or on a knoll of dry ground.

FOOD: Hunts for food, primarily on the wing, over fields, marshes, and meadows, taking a wide variety of prey including mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects, and fishes. Mostly eats small mammals.

REFERENCES: DeGraff et al. 1980, Evans 1982, Heintzelman 1979, Low and Mansell 1983, McAtee 1935, Sprunt 1955, Tate and Tate 1982, Terres 1980.

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