MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - All winter long a male Northern Harrier has been hunting in our crop fields. We see him gliding close to the ground, his slender body rising and falling with the contour of the land. Back in the pasture, a female Harrier is doing the same thing. As in most hawk species, she is larger than the male, but she too appears to float effortlessly just above the grass. Sometimes she rises above a ridge top only to disappear behind it as she follows a Flint Hills swale. Both the gray male and the brown female sport prominent white patches above the tail.
Northern Harriers used to be called Marsh Hawks, as they often hunt in open wetlands--but "harrier" is a more accurate term, for they are by no means limited to swampy ground. In fact, they are one of the characteristic birds of the tall grass prairie. My mentor, KSU ornithologist John Zimmerman, wrote in The Birds of Konza: The Avian Ecology of the Tallgrass Prairie that the grasslands of all continents have a similar array of birds: a chicken-like bird; a dryland shorebird; small, medium, and large insectivores; and a hawk that hunts on the wing.
In the tall grass prairie, those spots are filled by the Prairie Chicken, the Upland Sandpiper, the Grasshopper Sparrow, Dickcissel, and Meadowlark--and the Northern Harrier. Other hawks stay close to trees, returning to a favorite branch after hovering or diving for prey. But the Northern Harrier needs no perch. It "harries" its prey by pursuing it from the air. It can thus make a good living in an expanse of grass. Northern Harriers have been found in the Flint Hills during every month of the year (a few breed here, but most breed further north). They are most numerous and noticeable in the winter, when the calories provided by obliging rodents help them withstand the cold and prepare for the breeding season ahead.
Every glimpse I get of these gliding hawks lifts my spirits! Of course, these hawks aren't on earth to be my inspiration. They are here to survive, to pass their genes on to their progeny, to fulfill some mysterious purpose of their own. And yet in a way I can't completely explain, the link between us is not sentimental. It is tied somehow to my own survival, to the well being of future human generations, and to the still-unfolding mystery of our own purpose here on earth.