Hen Harrier

Circus cyaneus



Smaller than the Buzzard, this is a distinctive raptor with a long tail and long wings with finger-like ends. Males and females are different. The male has silvery blue-grey upperparts, he has white underparts, a white rump, and dark tips and trailing edge on his wings. The female is larger than the male and is mostly brown; the barring on her wings and tail is more obvious, her underparts and breast are streaked, her tail is grey-brown and she has a distinct white rump. The arrangement of her feathers makes her face resemble an owl's. Juvenile birds are like female adults but their breast and the underside of their wings are a reddish brown.


When breeding, favours upland heather moors and can also nest in conifer; breeds in Scotland, parts of northern England, Isle of Man, North Wales and Ireland. In winter its habitat is more varied and includes farms, river valleys and coastal marshes.


Usually seen in solitude by day, but gathers in roosting colonies in the evening. Flight is often quite low, gliding with very few wingbeats, wings in a 'V' shape. Males have a sky-dance which they perform in the spring, and he calls to the female in order to pass her food, either by dropping it to her or passing it to her in the air.


Diet includes small birds like Meadow Pipits, and it may also hunt voles, mice, rabbits, young waders and game birds.


In April, female incubates 4 or 5 eggs for about 34 days. Young vary in age because the female incubates each egg as it is laid. The male provides food while the female tends to the young for the first 10-15 days, then the female helps with hunting. At 37-42 days the young can fly, but independence takes a further several weeks.


Most birds that breed in Britain remain for the winter, while birds arrive from Europe to spend winter in the region. There are more than 600 territories in the UK, 29 on the Isle of Man and above 100 in Ireland.

Observation Tips

Quite easily confused with Montagu's Harrier, a problem best solved by noting the habitat and time of year; the Hen Harrier is perhaps the sole species likely to be seen in open countryside during the winter months. The East Anglian coast and the New Forest in Hampshire are consistent observation points in the winter, as is the Isle of Man between May and July.


Usually a quiet bird, but male makes a quick yikkering sound during his display ritual.
Back to Bird Index