Spotted Harrier: The Ultimate Guide

If you can manage to catch a glimpse of the spotted harrier as it glides around Australia, then you’re in for a treat. It flies methodically as it hunts for prey, scouting the ground with wings outstretched.

Intricate patterning from the crown to the tip of the tail makes the spotted harrier quite the sight.

Although the spotted harrier is found across Australia, there’s still much we don’t fully know about it. Preferring to keep to itself, the slim shape of the spotted harrier can be hard to pick out among the sparse coverage of the Australian open grassland.

There’s much to learn about the spotted harrier, and this ultimate guide hopes to provide an answer to almost any questions you might have. Hopefully, in the years to come, we can gain a better understanding of this magnificent bird of prey.

Appearance

A medium-sized bird with a slim and slender body, the spotted harrier has some striking features. It’s typically between 20 and 24 inches tall (50 to 61 cm), with an expected weight of around 1 to 2 pounds, or 450 to 900 grams.

From the front, the facial ruff of the spotted harrier gives it an owl-like appearance. It has a short, broad head, with yellow eyes. The legs are long and yellow, with a long wedge shaped tail.

The upperparts of the spotted harrier are blue to gray, with a chestnut face coloring that extends down the lower body. This chestnut body is covered in white spots, from which the harrier gets its name.

Black wing tips and thick black bands across the tail give a distinctive appearance to the spotted harrier.

Juveniles are mostly dark brown, with buff coloring on the upperparts. They have a similarly banded tail, but more mottled coloring across the body, including ginger patches. 

Male vs Female

The most obvious physical difference between the male and female spotted harrier is the size. The female is, on average, larger than the male. The male spotted harrier will reach an average height of 20 inches (50 cm).

The female can reach a height of 23 to 24 inches (58-61 cm).

Are They Aggressive?

The spotted harrier isn’t particularly known for being aggressive, although with the sharp talons of a bird of prey, they can cause some damage. The spotted harrier hunts its prey methodically, circling and searching before swooping in for an attack.

They also spend much of their time alone, rather than hunting in groups. If threatened, or when defending the nest, the spotted harrier could become aggressive.

What Adaptations Do They Have?

The spotted harrier is well suited to a life on the open lands of Australia. One way they’ve adapted is by their methodical quartering low to the ground. This systematic search allows them to spot prey animals as they move, before making a sudden swoop.

The spotted harrier gets its meal, and avoids a long and drawn out chase.

They’re aided in this search by their subtle patterning, which allows them to partly camouflage themselves against the arid and semi-arid conditions they live in. 

Breeding/Reproduction Behavior 

The spotted harrier has been observed to be a largely monogamous bird. They tend to mate in spring, but occasionally in early fall. A successful mating will often result in a clutch of 2 to 4 eggs.

After a 33-day incubation period, the spotted harrier young remain in the nest for several months. Guarded by the female as the male hunts, these juveniles will slowly build strength, before they’re ready to strike out alone.

Their Calls/Sounds

Not much is known about the sounds of the spotted harrier. Occasionally, it’s been observed to make a calling, screeching noise.

What Do Th0ey Eat? (Diet)

The spotted harrier is a carnivore, with a large appetite. It eats small mammals such as the bandicoot, the bettong, and rodents. Small birds and reptiles are also preyed upon, depending on what can be found.

The spotted harrier will glide and soar, searching out food on the ground. When prey has been spotted, the harrier swoops low to grab it.

Although the spotted harrier prefers mammals, it will eat large insects, if they’re around. They’ve been observed chasing locusts on the ground.

For a while, the spotted harrier ate a huge number of rabbits. However, as the rabbit population is on the decline in Australia, they’ve had to return to earlier food sources.

Where Do They Live? (Habitat)

Spotted Harrier

Open grasslands and open woodlands are the preferred habitat of the spotted harrier. They like areas with a lower amount of coverage, and can even be found in shrublands.

The spotted harrier can be found across Australia in arid and semi-arid regions, although they do seek out exposed areas with trees nearby. Sometimes, the spotted harrier can be found in agricultural land, or wetland. They’ll go to these areas when looking for food.

Living a mostly solitary life, the spotted harrier has a decent sized home range.

Populations of spotted harriers are found in Australia and Indonesia. They’ve also been observed as a vagrant population in Timor-Leste. The spotted harrier is found across mainland Australia, but is rarely seen on the island of Tasmania.

Spotted harriers in Tasmania are vagrant birds.

What Are Their Nesting Habits?

When the spotted harrier is breeding, it builds a simple stick nest high in the trees. This slightly flimsy structure is often lined with green leaves.

Although the spotted harrier prefers areas without a great deal of tree coverage, they head to slightly more built up forests when nesting. For this reason, it can be difficult to see the nests of a spotted harrier.

Once a clutch of eggs has been laid, the female spotted harrier stays in the nest to incubate. When the chicks have hatched, the female again stays to brood and guard. The male will instead hunt, and find food to bring back for the female.

How Long Do They Live? (Lifespan)

The expected lifespan of the spotted harrier isn’t well known, but they’re assumed to live for around 10 years when in the wild. 

The spotted harrier is vulnerable when first hatched, and stays in the nest for several months. The juvenile begins to resemble an adult spotted harrier at around 2 years old, only with white stripes instead of spots.

A largely solitary bird, the spotted harrier is often nomadic. It moves according to temperature and food source, travelling to improve the chances of survival.

What Predators Do They Have?

The spotted harrier doesn’t have much in the way of predators. Spending much of its lifetime alone, and able to glide through the air, there are very few predators who have the opportunity to attack a spotted harrier.

The main threat to the spotted harrier comes from human intervention. A degradation of habitat gives them less space to breed. They’ve also suffered from secondary poisoning.

Rodents, rabbits, and other pest animals that make up the spotted harrier prey are often poisoned. When the spotted harrier goes to eat, they then ingest that poison.

What Are Their Feathers Like?

The spotted harrier has a range of feathers across the body, giving them their unique and varied appearance. The feathers on the upper body/back are a blue-gray color, while the face and breast is a chestnut brown.

The front of the body is dotted with white spots, from which the spotted harrier gets its name. The tail feathers are long, with vivid black banding across a pale, buff base.

What Does Their Poop Look Like?

Wherever the spotted harrier goes to the toilet, it tends to be a private affair. Sticking to the warm and arid open grasslands of Australia, the poop of the spotted harrier dries up fast, and isn’t easily distinguishable from other bird poop.

Do They Migrate?

For the most part, the spotted harrier does not migrate. They prefer to stay within their large home ranges. However, they are considered partly nomadic.

Depending on the local weather and conditions, the spotted harrier may migrate to warmer regions during cold seasons.

Conservation Status?

Due to the widespread population, the spotted harrier is currently listed as least concern by the IUCN. However, agriculture and human development can cause problems for the bird, which relies on large open space to breed, hunt, and forage.

The spotted harrier is also sometimes poisoned, although, often inadvertently. Local human populations poison the mammals the harrier feasts on, causing the bird to ingest the same poison.

Although the spotted harrier is not currently under threat, it’s important to continue to care for them.

Fun Facts

The spotted harrier quarters the ground when it looks for food. That means it slowly and methodically searches for prey.

There are a few different names for the spotted harrier. The smoke hawk, Allied harrier, spotted swamp harrier, and Jardine’s harrier, are all names used for this species.

The spotted harrier is often seen as very similar to the swamp harrier, only preferring the dry lands to the wet swamps.