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The Pallid Harrier { Birds of Europe}

Updated on August 9, 2015

Pallid Harrier circus macrourus

Taken in India
Taken in India | Source


The Pallid harrier belongs to the order of birds known as the Acciptriformes and the family Accipitridae within that order. They are placed in the genus Circus from the Greek Kirkos,a large type of hawk and allocated the specific name of macrourus from the Greek Makros+oura tail.

In the UK they are rare visitors the first sighting being in Shetland in 1931,with the last being in Shetland, Scotland,in 2007. In the period 1950-2007 only twenty one records wer submitted , the last being recorded in England was from Norfolk in 2006.

In Europe they are classed as 1 global concern-endangered.Globally they are classed as Near Threatened. The species is known to be undergoing steep population declines in Europe, although numbers in its Asiatic strongholds are thought to be more stable.,however,overall it is considered to be near threatened.

They breed in Russia and other countries {see nest and eggs}. These birds overwinter in Africa and the Indian sub-continent, Afghanistan,Pakistan,India,Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh Myanmar with minority populations over wintering in south east and central Europe.

The European population is estimated between 310-1,200 pairs in the main in eastern Europe. The Global population is estimated at between 9,000-15,000 pairs. nearly all the pairs of the European population breed in Russia with a few in Turkey.

Montague's harrier


Northern Harrier of America

Originally posted on Flickr.
Originally posted on Flickr. | Source

What are Harriers ?

There are several species of Harriers which are basically large diurnal hawks forming the Circinae which is a sub family of the Accipitridae family of birds.

They characteristically hunt by flying over open ground,quartering in the manner of some owls.most Harriers are placed in the genus Circus,the name deriving from the circling movements made by the pair during courting displays.

The genus Circus includes some of the more familiar Harrier's such as Montague's Harrier { Pictured above. } and the Hen harrier. Others not so familiar include the Swamp Harrier also known as the Marsh Harrier Circus approximans an Australasian harrier ,and the long Winged Harrier Circus buffonii native to South America.

The Hen Harrier Circus cyanus breeds in Europe but also in the southern USA,Mexico and central America . In the USA the American form of the Hen Harrier is referred to as the Northern Hawk which occurs in most northern parts of the USA and Canada.

Here we review the most endangered European species the Pallid harrier Circus macrourus. We commence with a description of the species under review.

Pallid harrier at Spurn; {In slow motion}Courtesy of John William Cooper . Standard You Tube License

Description of the Pallid Harrier

As its common name suggests this is the palest and most ghostly of the Harriers. The upper parts of the adult male are blue grey,the head paler, upper tail coverts,white barred with dark grey,the remainder light at the base,becoming blackish towards the tip. The secondary feathers and wing coverts an ashy-blue grey.

The chin and sides of the head and throat white, with a blue grey tinge, the rest of the under parts white, the flanks have a few indistinct striations. The under wing coverts and basal portions of the wings underneath are pure white,the terminal portions being blackish. The bill is blackish, the cere,iris and legs are pale yellow. The total length of the bird about seventeen inches {42 cm }.

The female in general appearance is more rufous and the ground colour of the under parts and the markings on the upper parts being a warm buff-white.She is less rufous than the plumage of the Hen Harrier.

In adult plumage the male bird is similar to that of the Hen Harrier but may be readily distinguished by having the upper tail coverts barred and not plain white. in the plumage of the female it is not easy to distinguish them from the female Hen Harrier in the field.

The male is a narrow winged,light Harrier with a similar structure to Montague's Harrier. The female can be distinguished from the female Montague's Harrier by lack of solid,dark trailing edge to inner primaries when seen in flight from below combined with the duller secondaries,lack of dark bar along mid-secondaries on upper wing and other subtle characters.

Illustration pair of Pallid harriers

Dresser , History of Birds 1881. courtesy of the BHL.
Dresser , History of Birds 1881. courtesy of the BHL.

Sculpture of the Pallid Harrier


General and Historical information

This species,has we have seen, is endangered throughout its range, but this has not always been the case. in Dresser's excellent book 'A History of the Birds of Europe' 1871-1881, he writes of his observations of these birds which he knew under the scientific name of Circus swainsoni { At that time there were several other scientific names that had or was attached to the species}.

He states that in southern Europe this species is tolerably common,while in central and northern Europe it is but a a rare visitant.In Africa it was to be met with down to the Cape of Good Hope, and in Asia as far east as China. " it has not been met with in Britain and it is an extremely rare visitor in Scandinavia"

Professor Nilsson stated it has been met with on three occasions in Sweden,once on Gottland {May 1834} once at Lond in the same year ,and once near Gothernburg on the third of JUne 1853, and according to Von Wright,two examples have been shot in Finland, both near Helsingfors,one on the fifth of May 1842,and one on the eighth of May 1858,both of which were 'old'males.

At that time it was common in many parts of Russia especially on the Lower Volga. In North Germany according to Borggreve, it occurred here and there as a rare straggler,however, it appears to have been uncommon in southern Germany. for Dr.Anton Fritsh writes {1871} " That as yet it has only been twice observed in Bohemia-one adult male,having been obtained by Mr. Lokaj,and two seasonal examples are in the collection of Mr. Hromadko near Pardubic"

It appears from records that at this period it was common and resident on the eastern side of Africa. Dr. Jerden writing on its habits ,says,

" It frequents open ,stony plains and cultivated ground,occasionally hunting along hedgerows or the edge of some thick bush,regularly beating and squaring the ground. It feeds chiefly on reptiles and insects,occasionally on small mice and shrews and on sickly or wounded birds,especially quails. I have only seen it once perched in a tree.In general it perches on a stone,or a mound of earth or an ant hill or even on the ground. Its powerful sense of hearing must be of good use to it when it is seated on the ground at night, to give it warning of any approaching animal. occasionally it is surprised at night by a Jackal,or Mongoose,for I have not unfrequently found its feathers on the bind of a field".

" The flight of this Harrier is usually slow,a few beats,alternating with a sailing motion, but it is capable of,and now and then, taking sudden flights of considerable energy after a bird which it thinks it can capture. The sudden way in which it can stop its flight,and drop down on the ground on some quarry,must have been witnessed by many. It's is stealthy,noiseless mode of flight,and its sudden pouncing on its prey,have gained for it the appropriate Teliga and Tamul name of 'Cat-Kite'".

Male pallid Harrier in flight

Originally posted on Flickr,uploaded to Commons by AHA2
Originally posted on Flickr,uploaded to Commons by AHA2 | Source

Nest and eggs

This species breeds primarily in the Steppes of Asiatic Russia,Kazakhstan, and North West China,small populations breed in Azerbaijan, Romania,Turkey and Ukraine. Other localities are semi-desert,and Forest Steppe up to 2,000 meters,where its favoured nesting sights are wet grassland close to small rivers,lakes and marshland.

However, they will occasionally breed on cultivated ground. The pairs that choose the cultivated areas tend to nest earlier in the season than those nesting at higher altitudes. Records reveal that in 2007 six pairs nested in Moscow.

Like other species of Harrier,the nest of this species id placed on the ground,and in this case,being a mere depression in the soil lined with grass and or leaves. The female will deposit four or five eggs which are of a bluish white colour., Sometimes they are somewhat sparingly spotted with deep red,but this variety is uncommon.

The eggs are incubated for about thirty days. When the chicks are born only the female will feed the chicks while the male brings the food to her. As the chicks grow older the female will join the male on hunting expeditions. The young fledge after thirty five to forty eight days and will stay with their parents for a further three weeks before they are driven off to find a territory of their own.

Female Pallid harrier comes face to face with Nilgiri Tharanda

Taken Eravikulam National Park.
Taken Eravikulam National Park. | Source

Threats to the Pallid Harrier and latest observations.

As previously mentioned it is the most endangered of the European Harriers. The world population is small only 10,000-20,000 pairs remain.In Europe it is thought that only between 300-1,200 pairs are left mainly in Russia. The small population makes the species vulnerable.

The Pallid Harrier was once much more widespread but the conversion of Steppe grasslands into Arable agriculture has reduced the available habitat for the species. It is also affected by pesticides {including those used to kill Locust} in their wintering quarters.

It appears that the birds are beginning to spread into western Europe. There was a major influx in Europe in Autumn 2011 with large numbers showing up in Denmark,Sweden,Great Britain,France and . hopefully these beautiful birds will find new breeding homes and the population will gradually increase.


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, we who love birds can only hope that they make a successful come back,and you are so right about about our delicate ecosystem.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I do so hope these birds have a comeback. Both pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers are raising such havoc with our delicate ecosystem.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi, you are very welcome, thank you for your kind comments. Best wishes to you.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for sharing the details about a bird that I've never heard of before. This is a very informative hub.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Eddy hope you are better now,good to see you here. Thank you for your kind comments. Best wishes to you.


      Hello,Devika, they are indeed wonderful creatures each one so different. Thank you again for your encouraging comments and for your appreciated votes. Best wishes to you..

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Hi D.A.L. another great display here. Birds are such beautiful creatures and you always present your hubs in detail with perfect photos. I enjoyed learning about the Pallid Harrier. Voted up and interesting.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      4 years ago from Wales

      I knew nothing about the Pallid Harrier but I certainly do now. Great work as always and thank you for sharing.



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