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Northern Harrier, John Tschopp
Photo © John Tschopp

Photo: John Tschopp
Breeding evidence - Northern Harrier
Breeding evidence
Probability of observation - Northern Harrier
Probability of observation
Elevation plot - Northern Harrier
Elevation plot

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Northern Harrier
Circus cyaneus
Landscape associations:

Click on plot to view table of mean abundance
Elevation range:
0 - 1759 m
Conserv. status:
Not at risk
Global importance
of B.C. population:
Number of squares
ConfirmedProbablePossiblePoint counts
20 67 348 57
Long-term BBS trends
RegionYearsTrend (conf. interv.) Reliab.
Brit. Col.1970 - 2012 0.513 (-2.13 - 3.46)Low
Canada1970 - 2012 -2.17 (-2.92 - -1.52)High

Mean abundance by region

Bird Conservation Regions [plot]
NW Interior ForestBoreal Taiga PlainsGreat BasinNorthern RockiesN. Pacific Rainforest
0.080.04 0.070.03 0.07
Ecoprovinces [plot]
N. Boreal Mountains Taiga Plains Boreal Plains Georgia Depression Sub-Boreal Interior
0.080.06 0.030.07 0.03
S. Interior Mountains Central Interior Southern Interior S. Alaska Mountains Coast & Mountains
0.010.04 0.07   

Mean abundance by habitat [plot]

Boreal Altai Fescue AlpineBoreal White and Black SpruceBunchgrassCoastal Douglas-fir
Coastal Mountain-heather AlpineCoastal Western HemlockEngelmann Spruce -- Subalpine FirInterior Cedar -- Hemlock
 0.07 0.01
Interior Douglas-firInterior Mountain-heather AlpineMontane SpruceMountain Hemlock
Ponderosa PineSpruce -- Willow -- BirchSub-Boreal Pine -- SpruceSub-Boreal Spruce

Characteristics and Range The Northern Harrier's range spans most of North America and Eurasia; some authors consider the Eurasian population to be a separate species (Smith et al. 2011). In North America, it breeds mainly in the Boreal Forest. It is known to many birders by its large white rump patch and dihedral flight pattern as it forages low over open fields in search of small mammals and birds. It is quite distinct amongst diurnal raptors in having an owl-shaped facial disc and sexually dimorphic adult plumages, the male being largely greyish, and the female largely brownish. It is the only hawk in British Columbia that regularly nests on the ground.

Distribution, Abundance, and Habitat Campbell et al. (1990) noted that the Northern Harrier breeds in open areas up to 1,010 m, mostly in the lower Fraser River valley and interior British Columbia east of the Coast Mountains, with occasional records from Vancouver Island north to the Yukon border, but no confirmed breeding records from the extreme northwestern, northeastern and southeastern corners of the province. The Atlas expands on this distribution, with probable breeding from extreme northwestern British Columbia near the headwaters of the Tatshenshini River, and confirmed breeding in extreme northeastern British Columbia and in southeast British Columbia along the Columbia River valley, north to the headwaters of the Fraser River.

The Atlas Probability of Observation models map the most extensive, higher Pobs values in the Central Interior, Boreal Plains and Taiga Plains ecoprovinces. The large areas of grassland and range habitat in these ecoprovinces are a likely reason why they support the bulk of the breeding population in British Columbia.

The Northern Harrier nests on the ground mostly in open, marshy areas, but occasionally in drier fields and open burns; most nests in British Columbia have been found in wet or dry Cattail (Typha latifolia) marshes (Campbell et al. 1990). The Atlas found the Northern Harrier at elevations ranging from sea level on the south coast to 1,760 m in the Central Interior Ecoprovince. Sample sizes from point counts were low but suggest that there is little difference in abundance across this broad altitudinal range.

Conservation and Recommendations Whilst the Northern Harrier is not a species of conservation concern in British Columbia, ground nests close to centres of human population or on agricultural lands are susceptible to disturbance, destruction and predation from humans, their activities and their domestic pets. Where feasible, consideration should be given to erecting fencing exclosures or signage around known nests to protect them from accidental destruction and disturbance.

Myke Chutter

Recommended citation: Chutter, M. 2015. Northern Harrier in Davidson, P.J.A., R.J. Cannings, A.R. Couturier, D. Lepage, and C.M. Di Corrado (eds.). The Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia, 2008-2012. Bird Studies Canada. Delta, B.C. [14 Apr 2024]

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