The Harrier: three species to observe in our countryside


On the way to the countryside! It is there, and more precisely on the cultivated land, that the harrier, likes to nest and to hunt. Zoom on a majestic raptor, lover of small rodents.

Who are the harriers?

Harriers belong to the order Falconiformes and to the family of Accipitridae which brings together raptors with powerful talons and a sharply curved upper bill. There are three species of harrier in Western Europe:

  • The harrier of reeds (Circus aeruginosus);
  • The harrier Saint-Martin (Circus cyaneus);
  • The harrier ash (Circus pygargus).

As with most raptors, the harrier has a reverse sexual dimorphism, the female being a third larger than the male. It is also distinguished by a generally darker plumage.

What do harriers look like?

  • The Marsh harrier is the biggest of the three species. The tip of its wings, more rounded, is adorned with black while the underside is much darker. The head and upper breast are cream to reddish with fine dark longitudinal stripes. Its reddish-brown body also displays streaks. Wingspan: 110 to 130cm; Weight: 480g (male) – 610g (female);
  • The Saint Martin’s harrier has a body of intermediate size between the other species. It is also distinguished by a bluish gray plumage on the top, by the black tip of its wings and above all, by its white rump well marked which contrasts with its long very brown tail. Wingspan: 100 to 120cm; Weight: 340g (male) – 470g (female);
  • The Common Harrier is the smaller of the three species. Rather slender, the male has gray plumage with black wing tips and a black wing bar on the secondary flight feathers. The female has a white rump. Clearly exceeding the width of the wing, its tail is quite large. Wingspan: 95 to 115cm; Weight: 295g (male) – 345g (female).

Where do harriers live?

This bird migratory spends a long winter period in Africa or Asia and returns in fine weather to nest in much of Europe as well as in West Asia and the Middle East. The habitat of the three species differs:

  • The Marsh Harrier is found around water places and marshy areas with tall helophytes, those semi-aquatic plants with leafy stems and flowers above water. The raptor roams grassy crops, such as rice fields, rich in small rodents or birds, and flees the forest that is too dense for its taste;
  • The Saint-Martin harrier searches for environments open or semi-open and sparsely wooded: open forests, edges, cultivated areas, moors, meadows, steppes, marshes, peat bogs. In short, it favors areas characterized by a dense herbaceous or bushy layer with little covering;
  • The common harrier particularly appreciates dry peat bogs, wet or grazed meadows, reed beds, open plains, moors, cultivated plains or the plateaus devoted to mixed farming and breeding as well as the low scrubland.

What do harriers eat?

Harriers are generalist predators and opportunists who hunt on the lookout or by flying at very low altitude, at 2 or 3 meters in height. The prey register is varied but the micromammals (voles, field mice) constitute an important part of their diet. Then come the passerines that the harriers surprise on the ground like the larks, the buntings, the pipits the wagtails. If the opportunity arises, they can prey on larger prey such as partridges, pheasants or rabbits. Reptiles (lizards, snakes, young snakes) and big insects (grasshoppers, locusts, beetles, ground beetles) complete their meal.

How do harriers live?

In the off-season, harriers are quite birds sociable which can nest in loose colonies. The species is known to spend the night in groups of several dozen individuals. These dormitories This provides them with protection against predators such as the Northern Goshawk. On the other hand, when the day rises, each one goes hunting individually. During the breeding season, a behavioral change takes place in the harriers which become very territorial, especially the males who are very aggressive towards any congener entering their domain.

How do harriers reproduce?

The breeding season lasts from March to August and varies depending on the region, latitude and climate. In France, nesting begins in April. Pairs form when the birds reach the age of 2-3 years and this bond usually lasts all the life. During mating season, the pair meet on their territory – often the same from year to year – and build their nest down in herbaceous vegetation, using grasses and twigs heaped up a few centimeters thick. In May-June, the female lays 3 to 6 white eggs bluish (at the rate of one egg laid every 2 to 3 days) that she incubates for 28 to 35 days. The male supplies his partner during the incubation, then the litter in start of breeding. The female will then start hunting to supply her offspring. Young harriers leave the nest walking after 3 weeks before emancipating after about 40 days.

What protection for harriers?

The harrier population shows a regression due in part to the destruction of broods by harvesting work, hunting and the decline of its habitats. As seen above, common harriers and Saint-Martin live in cultivated plains and build their nests in cultures. Many of their broods are thus destroyed during harvest and mows before the young could take flight. Like all raptors, harriers are protected throughout France and by the Bern Convention. It is so prohibited to kill them, mutilate them, capture them, disturb them intentionally, destroy or remove their eggs and nests and degrade their environment. The longevity of the harriers is 16 years old.

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