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Juvenile Harrier

Dear Bird Folks:

Do you make house calls? I’m wondering if you would come over here to Namskaket Marsh and teach a poor baby Marsh Hawk to forage for itself. It has been soaring around for days, giving the most heartrending cries, hoping to be fed.

Nina of Skaket, Orleans


Yo Nina of Skaket,

Is there some kind of royal family living here in Orleans that I don’t know about? How did you get the title “Nina of Skaket”? Are you related to the King of Prussia or the Duke of Ellington? I’ve stopped making house calls, ever since I was ambushed by an angry mob of gray squirrels back in ’95. But in your case I might reconsider. How can I pass up a command performance from Nina of Skaket?

As their name suggests, Marsh Hawks are birds of prey, that are most often found near open fields or marshes. The name “Marsh Hawk” fit them so perfectly that of course it had to be changed. A few years back their common name was changed to Northern Harrier.

Harriers are wonderful birds for beginning birders. Both their markings and their behavior set them apart from most other hawks, making them easy to identify. Harriers don’t hunt for food by sitting and staring like those crusty old Red-tailed Hawks we see perched along the interstate. Harriers hunt by flying low to the ground. They glide just above the marsh, with their wings held in a “V” shape, much like a soaring Turkey Vulture. Harriers fly low and actually listen for prey. They have excellent hearing and can instantly react to the rustle or squeaks of mice and meadow voles.

In addition to their behavior, harriers also have a classic field mark that makes identification easy. They have a bright white patch at the base of their tail, giving them the look of a giant flicker or a flying rabbit.

Due to their love for open fields and marshes, harriers don’t need to build their nests in trees like other hawks, but instead they have adapted to nesting on the ground. Harrier nests can be found in isolated fields, moorlands or on the edges of marshes, nestled between the high tide mark and the dog poop.

Young harriers are protected by the female, while the male hunts for food. When the male returns with a meal, the female flies out to meet him. Not wanting to have to deal with the kids anymore than he has to, the male simply drops the food into midair and keeps on going. The female then snatches the mouse flavored Happy Meal out of the sky and returns to the nest.

While the young of some bird species are able to feed themselves as soon as they hatch out and others take a few weeks to learn the trick, birds of prey can take months to develop hunting skills. Capturing a speeding rabbit or finding a meadow vole, hidden in the deep grass, takes a lot more skill than picking up a worm off the road. Young hawks and owls need to spend much time watching, learning and practicing before they can fend for themselves. So how do they keep from starving in the meantime? They beg.

Like the five year old kid in Provincetown’s Penny Patch candy store, begging comes natural. It doesn’t need to be learned or practiced and it works great. With the possible exception of the five year old kid, birds are the best beggars in the animal kingdom. And birds of prey, especially owls, are the most skilled beggars of them all. All summer long we get calls from vacationers wanting to know what that awful scream is that they are hearing in the middle of the night. Probably 90% of the time those awful screams are the sounds of young Great Horned Owls begging for a nice skunk or a fresh hunk of cat to eat. The other 10% of the screams are from the people who have just gotten the bill for the small order of fried clams that they waited in line 20 minutes for.

I’m glad you have young harriers in your marsh Nina. I didn’t realize that they were nesting so close by. Sorry to say that you are just going to have to put up with the begging calls a little while longer. Sooner or later they will figure this hunting thing out and will finally shut up. In the meantime either ride it out or go buy a small order of fried clams and annoy the hawk with your own screams.