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The Beautiful Marsh Hawk or Northern Harrier

In a recent article, we looked at how true buzzards differed from what are called buzzards in North America. There are no true buzzards in North America. The name is used for North American vultures. The discussion reminded me of a North American bird that is quite similar in a number of ways to the true buzzards of Europe and Asia. It is called either a marsh hawk or a northern harrier, and we will use the two names interchangeably here.

Marsh hawks (Circus cyaneus) are medium-sized raptors, up to 20 inches long (about 50 cm), with a wingspan that is almost 4 feet, and weighing over a pound and a half (750 g).

The males are gray on the back and the females and younger birds are brownish. The bellies are light, with bars and banding of darker colors.

Northern harriers often fly relatively low over fields in search of prey. They are also known for their circling flight high above the ground. In fact, the genus name, Circus, comes from the Greek kirkos, meaning circle.

They often nest on the ground and prefer open areas, prairies, grasslands, and marshes. Although found over most of the US and Canada, they do migrate south during the winter. They are also found in Europe and Asia, mostly in northern areas.

Most of the diet consists of small mammals, particularly rodents, however, marsh hawks have also been known to take other birds.

Note that in northern Europe and Asia, this bird is more likely to be called a northern harrier. In the US, it is most often called a marsh hawk.

To me, true buzzards look and act a great deal like marsh hawks.

  • Do you think that this is a beautiful raptor?

    • Yes
    • No
  • Have you ever heard of or seen marsh hawks/northern harriers?

    • Yes
    • No
    • Possibly, I’m not sure
  • Do you think marsh hawks look like true buzzards (pictured here)?

    • Yes
    • No
    • A little

What do you think?

14 points
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Written by Rex Trulove

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13 Comments

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  1. It does look similar doesn’t it. The terms across the pond used to throw me, I had to research this a few years back.
    I love raptors, they are my favorite bird. So smart, so alert. Those eyes…. My favorite is the Red tail. I have one that likes to follow me when I hike close to home. She also comes and hangs out in the tree by our fence. Until the crows see her. Then the mob her until she gives up and flies off.

    • No. Vultures are far larger and they normally circle very high above the ground. While a buzzard hunts primarily by sight, vultures have a tremendously developed sense of smell. They eat carrion and can smell it from a distance of 5 miles or more.

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