The pallid harrier, also known as a Pale, are a migratory bird of prey and a part of the harrier family, which is characterized by their low flying hunting over open ground, their long tails and long wings as well as their slow and graceful flight- which can suddenly turn into a fast dive towards prey and are a specific subcategory of the birds of prey in the wider Accipitridae family.
This majestic bird has a wide range over a large part of Europe and Asia and has many distinctive features from their coloring to their behavior and migration patterns.
In this guide we’re going to highlight some of the key information you need to know about these birds, and we’ll be touching on everything from their appearance to their hunting behavior, mating, nesting, as well as their diet, habitat, migration routes, lifespan, natural predators and their conservation status to make sure you have everything you need to know and can spot them as soon as you have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of these amazing birds.
Let’s get started with their appearance so you know exactly what to look for when you’re out spotting.
The appearance of this bird is very distinctive and noticeable and the first thing you’ll note when they are in flight is that their wings are long, and are held in a shallow V shape while in slow flight low to the ground, to help with maneuverability and to make their gliding more controlled and slower, which helps them spot prey more easily in the open ground they primarily hunt in.
Like most harrier species, there are distinct color differences between males and females.
Males typically are white or grey on the upper side and white on the underside of the bodies, with thin black wingtip feathers at the extremity of both their wings.
Females are brown on the upper side and have white plumage in their tails beneath the main tail feathers, which is what gives the females the nickname ‘ringtails’. The underside of the female is a lighter brown of buff color with streaks through it.
The female is very similar to the Montagu’s harrier female coloration, but with a slightly darker secondary color on the underside making it possible to distinguish them if you have a keen eye.
Males are quite similar to the hen harrier but are a little smaller in size, with narrower wings and a paler coloration, as well as slightly different patterns in the wing feathers, however this can be hard to distinguish at distance or while the bird is in flight.
Male vs. Female
Male birds are typically 315g in weight (11.1 oz) while the females are slightly larger, as is common among the accipitridae family, and weigh in at 445g or (15.7 oz). The wing span of adults is roughly similar, coming in at around 40 to 48cm or 16 to 19 inches.
It is easy to distinguish between male and female harriers, as detailed above in the appearance section, they have vastly different plumage and this coupled with their noticeable size difference makes it very easy to determine which bird is male and which is female which is great for spotting pairs and keeping track of nesting and mating behavior.
Are They Aggressive?
Not especially, however they will defend their eggs and are capable hunters as birds of prey.
What Adaptations Do They have?
They are adapted for steady flight over low, open ground and are able to dive quickly to pin down and catch prey in grassy areas. Their wings are held in a distinctive V shape which makes identification while in flight easy when coupled with knowledge of their appearance and plumage.
The birds most commonly nest in single pairs but can nest in a larger but loose group of between 3 and 5 pairs which will dominate a territory. Unlike a lot of birds of prey, the nest of the pallid harrier is situated on the ground instead of high up in the trees, which is a unique feature of this species and speaks to their preference for hunting and living in open grassy areas.
Females incubate 3 to 6 eggs per clutch, however not all eggs survive this process and it’s common for at least a few eggs to not hatch or to successfully fledge. The incubation period is usually around 28 to 30 days and the eggs are incubated exclusively by the female unlike other birds of prey who share the responsibility for incubating and hunting.
The male usually spends time during incubation finding and bringing food for the female and hatchlings, while the female broods the hatchlings nearly continuously.
Eggs are usually white in color with some small brown markings occasionally.
Calls and Sounds
The call of the pallid harrier is a high pitched ‘keek-keek-keek’.
What Do They Eat? (Diet)
The primary prey of the pallid harrier is insects such as beetles, grasshoppers, locusts, worms and flies, however the bird is also capable of hunting small birds such as larks as well as small mammals that live in grassy areas such as mice, voles, rats and even lizards in some habitats.
The harrier will glide low over open ground and drift slowly, diving and surprising prey once they’ve identified it, making them very effective stealth and surprise hunters.
Where Do They Live? (Habitat)
These birds have an incredibly wide range due to their migration patterns and cover a large area at different times of the year.
Their breeding grounds are most typically in eastern europe and central asia/Iran, and winters in India and southeast Asia as well as some parts of Africa occasionally.
Vagrants have been spotted in western Europe and Great Britain but these sightings are vanishingly rare although a juvenile did winter successfully in the UK in 2002/03 and a pair of pallid harriers nested in the Netherlands in 2017, raising four chicks successfully, indicating that these birds are incredibly adaptive and can be found across Europe, Asia and parts of Africa.
What Are Their Nesting Habits?
The nesting habits of this bird are interesting as the nest is often made up of a pile of grass which will be hidden within or under various plants and vegetation, and are often located near or in meadows, scrubland or swampy areas where vegetation is most plentiful. Often the nest will be built over a small hollow for added protection for the eggs.
The nest is located at ground level due to the fact this species thrives in open grassy terrain where trees are less abundant.
How Long Do They Live? (Lifespan)
It is believed that the lifespan of the pallid harrier is somewhere around 13 to 14 years, and it’s possible that they could live longer in captivity depending on their care and diet as well as the suitability of the habitat and climate.
What Predators Do They Have?
There are no natural predators for pallid harriers, and as a bird of prey they are powerful enough and large enough to defend their nests and themselves from most creatures in their range, however opportunists may occasionally stumble across unguarded eggs in rare circumstances and find an easy meal.
However this is very rare as females are diligent mothers who incubate exclusively and only leave the eggs in extreme scenarios.
What Are Their Feathers Like?
The feathers of the pallid harrier differ between the sexes as mentioned before. For males they are grey and white on the upper side and underside respectively, with long black wingtip feathers and long narrow tail feathers which are quite distinctive.
Females are mostly brown on the upper side and lighter brown on the underside of their bodies, with white coverts in their tail feathers and wingfeathers.
What Does Their Poop Look Like?
Mostly brown or sometimes green, but this depends a lot on the health of the bird and what its diet consists of and can vary a little due to this.
Do They Migrate?
Yes, these birds migrate and travel considerable distances to escape the chill of the winter in their eastern european breeding grounds. They often flee to India, Iran and Africa in the winter to avoid the cold and will travel back to the north in the spring to begin nesting and mating by the summer time.
The conservation status of these birds is near threatened, which means that the bird may be considered to be at risk of extinction in the near future, although the species isn’t yet at a stage where it is considered officially threatened in the most immediate sense.
A range of issues affect the pallid harrier, particularly the decline of boglands and heaths where the birds prefer to summer and nest, as well as a decline in wide, open plains across much of Europe due to farming and other development activities.
Their scientific name is Circus Macrourus, Circus for the fact that they fly in circles and Macrourus for their noticeably long tails!