Northern HarrierCircus cyaneus (Linnaeus)
Status Uncommon in summer, fairly common transient, rare in winter. Breeds. Once common, its numbers have diminished during the past quarter century. It remains widely distributed but is more common during summer near the New Brunswick border. Birds believed to be spring migrants (rather than overwintered birds) arrive generally in late March or early April (average 3 April, earliest 14 March). Larger numbers occur during fall migration, especially on our southern islands (for example, 30 were reported on Seal Island on 10 October 1982). A few birds regularly remain into early winter and occasionally throughout the winter, mostly in coastal areas.
Description Length: 45-60 cm. Adult male: Light slate-blue above; white below, sparsely spotted with rusty brown. Black wing tips. Adult female: Mostly reddish brown above, underparts buffy with narrow streaks of dark brown. Immatures: Like adult female but darker and more reddish. All three plumages have a conspicuous white rump patch.
Breeding Nest: Invariably placed on the ground, usually in wet meadows or near their margins; composed of coarse reeds and decaying vegetable matter; a flat, rather slovenly affair. Eggs: 3-6; dull white or bluish white; rarely with brownish markings distributed sparsely, mostly about the larger end. An extensive study of the behaviour and breeding biology of this species in the Amherst area was carried out by Acadia University graduate student Robert Simmons in 1980-83. He found up to 20 nests each year in the area with, as usual in this species, some strongly territorial males mated to more than one female.
Range Breeds north to northern Alaska, northwestern Mackenzie, northern Manitoba, central Quebec and probably Newfoundland, south to middle and southwestern United States. Winters from British Columbia, southern Ontario and Nova Scotia to Colombia and the West Indies. Additional races occur in Europe and Asia.
Remarks Although the food of this hawk consists largely of mice and other small rodents, it eats a variety of other animals. While canoeing on the Cornwallis River above Kentville in August 1942, I twice flushed Northern Harriers from among marginal reeds, so close it was apparent they had been disturbed while feeding. Investigation revealed a small salmon, long dead, half-devoured, and a freshly killed frog that had been neatly and adeptly skinned.
On 2 September 1949 I saw one at Canard, Kings County, sitting on the ground with its wings slightly extended, obviously holding its prey. When approached, the hawk carried its victim a short distance, but finding it too burdensome soon dropped it. Proceeding to the spot, I found a Gray Partridge the hawk had just killed by strangulation, the victim's neck bearing the only marks of violence. Further examination of the bird showed it had been sick, its body cavity filled with an offensive yellowish fluid. Had the partridge been healthy, the hawk probably would have known instinctively not to attack prey of that size and weight.
On a third occasion, while duck hunting on the Grand Pre in early November 1933, I disturbed a Northern Harrier at mealtime. It flushed from a thick growth of cattails on the edge of a slough within a few feet of me. Investigation revealed the remains of an American Black Duck lying on top of a muskrat's house, its breast half-eaten. Examination of the carcass revealed a shattered wing, the gangrenous condition of the wound proving beyond doubt that this duck had escaped from a hunter earlier in the season. Had the hawk not finished it off, its doom would have come with the first heavy frost.
With further reference to the food habits of this bird, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (1940) received a complaint from a group of sportsmen resident in the southern states that this hawk was preying heavily on local quail. They demanded steps be taken to reduce the number of Northern Harriers. An investigation followed and "of 1100 'pellets' that were collected and analyzed, it was found that quail parts were present in four only, and cotton rat remains in 925." Because cotton rats are known to be highly destructive to quail eggs, the maligned hawk was shown to be in fact beneficial to the quail, and thus the wholesale destruction of hawks by well meaning but misinformed hunters was fortunately prevented.
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