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The Northern Harrier AKA Marsh Hawk

Dear Bird Folks,

One of my favorite birds is the Northern Harrier, but when I was a kid we called the same bird a “Marsh Hawk.” When did they change the name? I like the old one better.

– Jim, Mashpee, MA


It was in 1982, Jim,

That was a dark year for you, me, and all the Marsh Hawk fans everywhere. In 1982, the same year USA Today was first published and Disney’s EPCOT opened, our pals at the American Ornithological Union decided we should start calling Marsh Hawks “Northern Harriers.” I was unhappy about it for several reasons. Not only did they take away an excellent bird name, but they did it without telling me ahead of time. This eventually led to a bit of awkwardness. A few months after the name change, a lady came into my shop and started talking to me about Northern Harriers. (Huh?) I had no idea what bird she was talking about, so I just pretended I did. (You know, like when someone walks up to you at a party and you fake like you know them, but actually have no clue.) The minute the woman left, I ran to the bookshelf and looked up Northern Harrier, which, of course, wasn’t in any of my books…yet. It wasn’t until the new bird guides came out that I sadly discovered the Marsh Hawk was no more. That was thirty-two years ago and I still haven’t gotten over it.

The American Ornithological Union (a union to help promote birds, not to give them more coffee breaks) works hard to ensure common bird names are fitting and consistent. They want everyone in the country to refer to a particular bird using the same name. They saw what happened in the food industry and don’t want a “hoagie/grinder/sub” fiasco on their hands. Sometimes these name changes are based on new scientific evidence; other times they are due to public pressure. In 2003, for example, the Rock Dove (aka, city park pigeon) was officially changed to Rock Pigeon. The A.O.U. finally realized that no matter how hard they tried to convince people, no one was ever going to call a pigeon a dove. If you can’t beat ‘em…

Sometimes a new name is actually an improvement. Not too long ago the majestic Peregrine Falcon was called by the thuggish name of “Duck Hawk” (sounding like a Dick Tracy villain). And in 1973, one lucky bird was stripped of the grimy title of “Pigeon Hawk” and instead was awarded one of the best names in the world…Merlin. Now that’s an upgrade. But the Marsh Hawk’s moniker is different. It totally applies. This bird eats, sleeps and breeds in marshes. If you see a bird slowly and methodically flying just above a marsh or grasslands, you can bet your lunch money that it’s a Marsh Hawk. Why the change? Sometimes officials do things that defy logic (like building an annoying traffic circle in the middle of Orleans), but this move isn’t as crazy as it seems. There are about a dozen different species of harriers found throughout the world and our Marsh Hawk just happens to be one of them. The A.O.U. wasn’t comfortable allowing this one harrier to have a non-harrier name. So, in 1982, they decided our Marsh Hawk had to become a Northern Harrier. Many folks weren’t thrilled with the change, but things could have been worse. In Europe, this same bird is called a “Hen Harrier.” Ish! Can you imagine? It sounds like a derogatory term given to a nagging wife in a ‘50s sitcom: “Gotta go home and face the old Hen Harrier.” No dignified bird of prey should be called that.

Regardless of the name, Northern Harriers are distinctive birds and fairly easy for novices to identify. To begin with, harriers are active and obvious hunters. Most raptors hunt by patiently sitting on an exposed perch, watching for prey to come into view. Others use their superior speed to surprise an unsuspecting victim. Harriers don’t do either. These graceful birds hunt by slowly flying just above a field, dune or marsh. They sometimes fly unpredictably, seemingly pushed about by the wind like wandering monarch butterflies. This erratic hunting style is unique and should quickly distinguish this bird from any other hawk… at least any sober hawk.

It is thought the reason why harriers fly so low is to help them “hear” prey. Borrowing a technique from owls, harriers hunt by using their ears, listening for the slightest squeak or rustle in the grass. Also, like owls, the face of a harrier is disc-shaped, which helps funnel sounds to the bird’s hidden ears. Another distinctive field mark for harriers is a bright white patch at the base of their tails, which reminds me of flying cottontail rabbits. (Flying cottontails? Now who’s not sober?)

Over the past few decades the population of Northern Harriers has been declining. Many of their favorite inland nesting areas have been converted to farms or shopping centers. Development has also been a problem along coastal areas. Harriers tend to avoid marshes and dunes that are frequented by too much human activity. With this in mind, I think the bird’s decline can be blamed squarely on organizations like eHarmony and other online dating services. By matching up all those dreamers who actually like to “take long walks along the dunes of Cape Cod,” they are helping to scare away one of my favorite birds. Stupid romance.

I’m totally with you, Jim. Marsh Hawk was a good name and I miss it, too. But look on the bright side; at least they didn’t end up being called Hen Harriers. How embarrassing would that have been?