Bird of the Week: Hen Harrier

One of the UK's most persecuted birds, and a flashpoint for conflict between humans.

By Caroline Offord
Published 3 Sept 2019, 11:07 BST
Hen Harriers typically feed on small mammals – but their diet does extend to birds.
Hen Harriers typically feed on small mammals – but their diet does extend to birds.
Photograph by Nature Photographers Ltd / Alamy

Hen Harriers are birds of prey that breed in open, upland moors. While males are a pale grey colour, females and immatures are brown with a white rump and a long, barred tail which give them the name 'ringtail'. They fly with wings held in a shallow 'V', gliding low in search of food.

They nest on the ground, and usually the female sits on the nest to incubate the eggs while the male hunts and returns to the nest with food. He passes food to the female in mid-air, in an amazing acrobatic feat, so as not to give away the nest location to potential predators.

95% of a hen harrier’s diet is made up of small mammals, but they do eat a small proportion of other birds, including song birds such as meadow pipits, shorebirds, waterfowl and grouse. 

Of the UK's birds of prey, this is the most intensively persecuted. Feeding on grouse brings them into direct conflict with moorland that is being managed for grouse shooting, particularly those with intensive grouse rearing for driven shoots. It is the cause of modern conflict, and threatens this bird's survival in some parts of the UK.

The Hen Harrier's plumage differs dramatically between males and females, with the latter a brown colour with a barred tail.
Photograph by Andy Hay, RSPB Images

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