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.