Black Harrier: The Ultimate Guide

The black harrier is a small bird of prey native to Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. This is a bird that appears to be all black, however, when in flight its white plumage becomes visible.

The black harrier is a medium-sized bird that appears to be very similar to other harriers.

This is a breed that has struggled with conservation issues in recent years because of a loss of habitat, as well as because of the influence of pollutants. There are now less than 1,000 of these beautiful birds left in the wild.

Because of this, the black harrier is classified as an endangered species.


Adult black harriers can be recognized for their black plumage, white rump, as well as its striped black and white tail, and silver wing panels. The bird often appears to be all black when perched in one spot, but in flight, its other plumage colors are much more noticeable, particularly the rump and flight features.

In terms of size, the black harrier is very similar to other African harriers. It features a slim body, narrow wings, as well as a long tail.

Juvenile birds have heavily spotted breasts as well as buff under-parts.

Size Measurements

Wingspan: 3.4ft to 3.77ft, 41 inches to 45 inches, 105cm to 115cm

Weight: 0.8lbs to 1.3lbs, 400g to 600g

Body length: 1.4ft to 1.6ft, 17 inches to 20 inches, 44cm to 50cm

Male Vs Female

The male and female black harrier birds are very similar in terms of plumage and general appearance. They both have similar yellowish legs, eyes, and cere. However, the male birds have grayer primaries, as well as a more coal-black plumage than their female counterpart. The females are typically slightly heavier than the males.

Are They Aggressive?

This is a bird that doesn’t typically get aggressive towards humans, and will more than likely avoid coming into contact with them. However, if their nest is under threat, the black harrier will become aggressive to ward off other predators.

If you were to approach a black harrier hawk nest, you may experience an attack.

What Adaptations Do They Have?

The black harrier hawk has several adaptations to help them in their day-to-day life. Their smaller build helps them to be lithe fliers, allowing them to fly low over the ground to catch their prey.

This also makes them efficient fliers, which comes in handy when they start to migrate during the summer and winter months.

Black harriers also have sharp beaks and claws to help them catch, kill, and tear into the flesh of their catches.

Breeding/Reproduction Behavior

Black harriers are mostly monogamous. There are some instances where a male will breed with two females, but this is most detrimental to the second female. This behavior typically only happens in the birds that breed in the mountains rather than on the coast.

Interestingly, the black harrier will nest in loose colonies. There will be anything between 3 to 15 pairs in a colony, with their nests being around 50 meters apart.

Similar to other harriers, the black harrier will have nests on the ground. They will typically lay eggs between June and November, with clutches of around 3 to 5 eggs at a time. These are then incubated for 35 days. Chicks usually fledge around 40 days.

It is thought that black harriers breed once every two years so as to allow their bodies to recover from the stress of breeding.

Their Calls/Sounds

On the whole, the black harrier is a quieter bird. However, they can sometimes be heard making a “woep-woep-woep” call during the spring months while they dance throughout the sky. 

The males have been observed to make a hardly audible “purrdk” call when they are approaching their nests with food. Females have been observed to make a higher pitched “pseew-pseew-pseew-pseew” when asking for food.

What Do They Eat (Diet)

Similar to other harrier hawks, the black harrier mostly feeds off small mammals. These typically tend to be small birds and rodents, however, they will occasionally eat reptiles. The black harrier hawk will fly low over the ground to catch its prey.

There are some variations in diet depending on the location of the bird, but the black harrier mostly feeds on the four-striped mouse.

During the hotter months of the year, the smaller mammals are less active. This forces the black harrier hawk to adapt its diet to suit the available food sources.

Where Do They Live (Habitat)

This particular bird of prey is native to Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. They are mostly distributed along with the Southern coastal plants and the majority of nests are concentrated along the coastal strip. There are some nests that tend to be more inland, too.

The black harrier is a migratory bird, and will unusually follow west to east migration patterns. They start in the southwestern South Africa breeding areas and then begin to migrate towards the Eastern Cape, Kwa-Zulu Natal, Lesotho, and Mpumalanga.

It is also worth noting that the area they inhabit at various points in the year may also be influenced by the availability of food.

What Are Their Nesting Habits

Similar to other harrier hawks, the black harrier will nest on the ground.

They will typically nest in tall vegetation to try and conceal these from any potential predators or threats. The black harrier will build a nest using dried vegetation on the ground, where they will lay their eggs.

Perhaps unusually for a bird of prey, the black harrier will nest in loose colonies. This helps them to alert one another to any potential predators who could be nearby.

How Long Do They Live (Lifespan)

The black harrier hawk typically has an average lifespan of around 8 years. This will vary depending on habitat and availability of food sources, as well as the general health of the bird.

What Predators Do They Have?

Even though they are a bird of prey, the fact that the black harriers nest on the ground makes them vulnerable to some predators. Their nests will be especially vulnerable before their eggs hatch, or even before their young have had a chance to fledge.

The black harrier is vulnerable to a range of predators because of this, including rats and leopards.

What Are Their Feathers Like?

The black harrier gets its name from its black plumage. However, they do also have white feathers, as well as a black and white striped tail.

Do They Migrate?

Yes, the black harrier hawk does migrate. In contrast to most migratory birds, the black harrier will migrate from west to east along the coast of South Africa. 

Another remarkable thing about the migration of the black harrier is that it travels faster during the summer migration after breeding than they do in the winter migration period before breeding.

It is hypothesized that this could be because the extra time they save on the first migration helps them to find better nesting areas.

Interestingly, black harriers will typically return to the area where they were hatched so that they can raise their own young in the same place. However, some birds may choose to breed in other areas.

Conservation Status

Unfortunately, the black harrier is one of the rarest birds in South Africa. As a result, they are considered to be highly endangered as a species. There are thought to be only around 1,000 birds in the wild.

This has mostly been because of a loss in their natural habitat. The black harriers have lost a lot of their preferred fynbos habitat, and have even been displaced from some areas entirely. The birds that inhabit more mountainous areas aren’t as successful with their breeding, and suffer a lot of nest predation.

It is also thought that overuse of pesticides has had a negative impact on the black harrier.

Fun Facts

  • The black harrier is a rare bird, and has become classed as an endangered species as a result. There are thought to only be between 1,000 to 2,000 birds in the wild
  • Unlike other migratory birds, the black harrier is known for migrating west to east rather than the other way around
  • The black harrier is known for travelling much quicker during the summer migration than in the winter migration
  • Unusually for a bird of prey, the black harrier has been known to nest in loose colonies. There could be anywhere between 3 to 15 pairs in a single area, with the nests spaced out at around 50 meters
  • Black harriers typically return to the place they were born to breed
  • Black harriers are mostly monogamous birds, however, in mountainous areas some males have been known to court two females at the same time
  • Unlike some birds, the black harrier has a sabbatical year where they don’t breed. It is thought this is because it helps them to recover from the whole breeding process