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Northern Harriers in Western Kansas Seen as Symbol of Hope

Northern Harrier (Photo from The Cornell Lab: www.allaboutbirds.org)

The North American bird population has been declining for years, perhaps by as much as 30% since the 1970s. But even in the depths of a Kansas winter, there may be signs of hope. During a recent trip out west, Commentator Rex Buchanan says he saw one of those hopeful symbols. 


Commentator Rex Buchanan is director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas. He lives in Lawrence.

 

(Transcript)

Every January I go out to western Kansas with a crew that measures water levels. One of my favorite parts of the job is the wildlife that I see, mainly in between wells, especially the birds and mammals that aren’t real common here in eastern Kansas. One year I pulled up to a well where empty irrigation pipes served as a home to hundreds of jackrabbits. I always see mule deer and white-tails, coyotes, pheasants, prairie dogs. Sometimes antelope. Once a golden eagle.

But maybe my favorite thing is watching northern harriers. We don’t see huge numbers here in eastern Kansas. But out west, especially in southwestern Kansas, they’re abundant.

Northern harriers are raptors, birds of prey, like hawks and eagles and vultures. Harriers are maybe a little smaller than the red-tailed hawks you see around here. Gray or brown, with a broad white stripe running across their tail They’re sometimes colloquially called “marsh hawks.”

I mainly see the harriers swooping low, tilting from side to side as they fly over grasslands. They’re especially common above fields that were planted to grass as part of the Conservation Reserve Program, known as CRP. That land was set aside, mainly to prevent soil erosion, and many of the fields have grown up in tall, profuse prairie grass, especially big bluestem. Harriers glide over and circle above the grass, living up to their scientific name, Circus cyaneus, with the circus referring to the circular way they fly.

The harriers are generally hunting small rodents, especially mice, in the grass. Like owls, harriers listen for their prey as much as they look for them, one reason they fly so low over the grassland.

That flight behavior, and that white stripe across the tail, makes them pretty easy to identify, even for a casual bird-watcher like me.

Northern harriers are migratory birds, especially common out west in the winter. And somehow it always makes me feel good to see them there every January, gliding gently over the brown prairie grasses.

In the past few months, there’s been considerable discussion about the disconcerting decline in North American bird numbers. According to Science magazine, the continent has lost 3 billion birds since the 1970s, a drop of nearly 30%. Even local birders around here have commented on the lack of birds showing up at their feeders this winter. It isn’t just the rare bird species that are down. Numbers for many common birds, like sparrows, blackbirds, larks, and finches, are down. Habitat destruction, like urbanization or the conversion of grassland to cropland, gets at least some of the blame.

That’s one reason was it was especially good to see so many northern harriers out west a few weeks ago.

It’s easy to get discouraged by bad news these days, especially when it comes to the natural world. Wildfires in Australia, rollback of environmental regulations. For me, somehow, harriers are like old friends, who make you feel like things, at least in one small corner of the world, are as they should be.

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