Harrier (bird)

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Western marsh harrier
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Accipitriformes
Family: Accipitridae
Subfamily: Circinae
Bonaparte, 1838
Genus: Circus
Lacépède, 1799
Type species
Falco aeruginosus
Linnaeus, 1758

See text

A harrier is any of the several species of diurnal hawks sometimes placed in the subfamily Circinae of the bird of prey family Accipitridae. Harriers characteristically hunt by flying low over open ground, feeding on small mammals, reptiles, or birds. The young of the species are sometimes referred to as ring-tail harriers. They are distinctive with long wings, a long narrow tail, the slow and low flight over grasslands and skull peculiarities. The harriers are thought to have diversified with the expansion of grasslands and the emergence of C4 grasses about 6 to 8 million years ago during the Late Miocene and Pliocene.[1]


Northern harrier, adult male

The genus Circus was introduced by the French naturalist Bernard Germain de Lacépède in 1799.[2] The type species was subsequently designated as the western marsh harrier.[3][4] Most harriers are placed in this genus. The word Circus is derived from the Ancient Greek kirkos, referring to a bird of prey named for its circling flight (kirkos, "circle"), probably the hen harrier.[5] The name harrier is thought to have been derived either from Harrier (dog), or by a corruption of harrower, or directly from harry.[6]


Ring-tail is an informal term used by birders for the juveniles and females of several harrier species when seen in the field and not identifiable to an exact species.[7] Ring-tail harriers include the juveniles and females of Montagu's harrier (Circus pygargus), hen harrier (Circus cyaneus), and pallid harrier (Circus macrourus).

A male Montagu's harrier displays the signature upswept wings and grassland habitat.


The genus contains 16 species:[8]


The subfamily Circinae has traditionally included the genera Polyboroides and Geranospiza which include three species: the Madagascar harrier-hawk, (Polyboroides radiatus), the African harrier-hawk, (Polyboroides typus) and the crane hawk, (Geranospiza caerulescens). This may however not be a valid subfamily as the monophyletic genus Circus is nested within the Accipiter groups while the other two genera are paraphyletic and are part of the larger Buteonine clade. Many species in the genus Circus show very low diversity in their mitochondrial DNA due perhaps due to extreme drops in their populations, which are prone to fluctuations with varying prey densities.[10][11]


  1. ^ Oatley, Graeme; Simmons, Robert E.; Fuchs, Jérôme (2015). "A molecular phylogeny of the harriers (Circus, Accipitridae) indicate the role of long distance dispersal and migration in diversification". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 85: 150–60. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2015.01.013. PMID 25701771.
  2. ^ Lacépède, Bernard Germain de (1799). "Tableau des sous-classes, divisions, sous-division, ordres et genres des oiseux". Discours d'ouverture et de clôture du cours d'histoire naturelle (in French). Paris: Plassan. p. 4. Page numbering starts at one for each of the three sections.
  3. ^ Mayr, Ernst; Cottrell, G. William, eds. (1979). Check-list of Birds of the World. Volume 1 (2nd ed.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Museum of Comparative Zoology. p. 316.
  4. ^ Lesson, René P. (1828). Manuel d'ornithologie, ou Description des genres et des principales espèces d'oiseaux (in French). Vol. 1. Paris: Roret. p. 105.
  5. ^ Jobling, James A. (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. p. 109. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4.
  6. ^ Hogg, John (1845). "A catalogue of birds observed in South-eastern Durham and in North-western Cleveland". The Zoologist. 3: 1049–1063.
  7. ^ "Harriers in India: A Field Guide" (PDF). wwt.org.uk. Wetland Link International. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2022-10-09. Retrieved 27 January 2021.
  8. ^ Gill, Frank; Donsker, David; Rasmussen, Pamela, eds. (August 2022). "Hoatzin, New World vultures, Secretarybird, raptors". IOC World Bird List Version 12.2. International Ornithologists' Union. Retrieved 6 December 2022.
  9. ^ Etherington, Graham J.; Mobley, Jason A. (2016). "Molecular phylogeny, morphology and life-history comparisons within Circus cyaneus reveal the presence of two distinct evolutionary lineages". Avian Research. 7. doi:10.1186/s40657-016-0052-3.
  10. ^ Griffiths, Carole S.; Barrowclough, George F.; Groth, Jeff G.; Mertz, Lisa A. (2007). "Phylogeny, diversity, and classification of the Accipitridae based on DNA sequences of the RAG-1 exon". Journal of Avian Biology. 38 (5): 587–602. doi:10.1111/j.2007.0908-8857.03971.x.
  11. ^ Fuchs, Jérôme; Simmons, Robert E.; Mindell, David P.; Bowie, Rauri C. K.; Oatley, Graeme (2014). "Lack of mtDNA genetic diversity in the Black Harrier Circus maurus, a Southern African endemic". Ibis. 156: 227–230. doi:10.1111/ibi.12103.

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