How to Identify a Northern Harrier

Updated: Oct. 11, 2023

What is that bird of prey gliding over the grasslands? Learn what a northern harrier looks like, and what similarity they share with owls.

Northern Harrier Identification

278220540 1 Marina Schultz Bnb Bypc 2021Courtesy Marina Schultz
Adult male northern harrier

When you’re squinting up at the sky, it can be tricky to tell which raptor you’re seeing. If you’ve spotted a northern harrier, you’ll likely first see the bird’s whitish belly (with notable brown streaks, in the case of females). You’d also take note of the bird’s black wingtips, black-banded tail, and overall posture when flying—northern harriers fly with their wings in a distinct “V” shape.

If you find a northern harrier perched, look for gray coloring (in the case of males) or brown coloring (in the case of females or juveniles). Observe the bird’s hooked beak and yellow eyes—if you’re observing a juvenile, the eyes might be brown or green.

“This is an adult male northern harrier (above), whom I’ve nicknamed Grey Ghost. He is a familiar sight on my fence posts as he hunts mice and birds. You can tell males from females very easily since females are brown. They are unusual hawks with their owl-like faces. They are my favorite raptor,” says reader Marina Schultz.

Discover more types of hawks you should know.

Northern Harrier Habitat and Range

Male Northern HarrierLarry Keller, Lititz Pa./Getty Images
Look for northern harriers in open fields, marshes and grasslands.

Northern harriers typically fly low to the ground over grasslands in search of their prey. You’d likely find them in grassy fields or even near marshes, since they favor open areas. Because they’re dependent on those habitats to hunt, they’ll usually migrate south during winter in areas where heavy snows are common.

These birds are year-round residents in about one-third of North America. Northernmost states like Wisconsin and Minnesota only see them during breeding season, while southern states like Texas, Florida, and Arizona will glimpse them during nonbreeding season.

Learn how to identify a red-tailed hawk.

Diet and Nesting

Northern harrier in flight huntingMark Chivers/Getty Images
Northern harrier in flight hunting for prey

Similarly to other raptors, northern harriers are meat-eating birds who consume a wide variety of prey. Much like owls, they rely on their hearing to hunt. They eat mice, rats, voles, rabbits, and even songbirds.

It might surprise some to learn northern harriers are ground-nesting birds. Males start building the large nest in a safe clump of thick vegetation, and the female completes most of the work. The female lays a clutch of four to five eggs; they’ll incubate for up to five weeks, and the young will remain in the nest for two weeks.

What do hawks eat? Learn more about their diet and hunting habits.

Sounds and Calls

It might be easy to mistake a northern harrier for a woodpecker at first—they give a similar high-pitched chirping call made up of repetitive short notes. Usually, though, these birds remain quiet. During nesting season, the female might give a squeaky screaming call.

Next, check out simply stunning pictures of hawks.