|Hen Harrier (Cromán na gCearc) (Circus cyaneus)
Hen Harrier Research,
National Parks and Wildlife Service
A Precious Jewel in the Crown of Irish Wildlife
The Hen Harrier is one of, if not the most elegant and graceful, spectacular and exciting birds in the world. It is an asset to the life, biodiversity and heritage of any country in which it is found.
In Ireland, the Hen Harrier is a rare Bird of Prey, found on the uplands during the breeding season throughout the spring and summer, and on the lowlands during the autumn and winter. One of the most striking things about the bird is that the male and female differ remarkably in size and colour, so much so, that for many years, the two were thought to be separate species!
The male is a stunning looking white or silver bird with a bluish tinge, and broad black tips to the wings. The female is a larger bird of a beautiful rich brown plumage with a white rump and brown and white barring or rings on the tail. The white rump on the back of the tail is very important in being sure if it is a Hen Harrier. There are other brown birds of prey in Ireland (e.g. Kestrel and Sparrowhawk) but only the Hen Harrier has the white rump and holds its elegant wings out fully when gliding/flying. Also, Hen Harriers are more likely to be seen flying low over the ground than the other birds of prey. The male is unmistakeable, no other bird of prey in Ireland looks like him. It is interesting to learn that males are brown when young. This gives them camouflage in the nest. They begin to turn white when they are 1 year old onwards.
Female Hen Harrier
Male Hen Harrier
Distribution and Habitat
The Hen Harrier is found mostly in just the South and Mid West of the country, with a few pairs in the midlands and North West. Its breeding distribution has declined over the years. In many areas where it was once common e.g. Wicklow, it is now extinct because of habitat loss such as afforestation.
Distribution of the Hen Harrier in Ireland (O’Donoghue, 2004)
The reason these areas are so important is because of the special mix of farmland and bogs. This provides the Hen Harrier with the habitat which it needs to live. Forestry is good for the harriers when the trees are small but when the trees grow up, it blocks out the ground and the harrier cannot fly between the trees. Too much forestry will mean that the harrier’s habitat is lost for the 30 years when it is tall. We have to be careful to save our farmland and bogs and be careful about how forestry is managed so as not to have too much tall forestry at the one time.
Skydancing and aerial re-fuelling!
In Spring (around March and April), the males impress the females by doing a dance in the sky (skydance). This is incredible to see and can last over 10 minutes long. It involves the male flying very high into the sky, free falling from the sky, spinning and somersaulting better than any fighter jet could ever do in an air-show! This will show the female how strong and fit and agile the male is. Watching this you would think the male is out of control and about to hit the ground, but just inches from the ground – after dropping 100s of metres, the male again picks himself up to rise high again before dropping again like a roller-coaster! The female may decide herself to take part in this sky dancing!
Another amazing and spectacular trait of the Hen Harrier is the food pass from the male to female. The male, carrying prey in his talons will call to the female as he approaches the nest area. The female will rise to meet the male and as she comes near him, will summersault upside down, so as to take the prey from his feet with her own feet. It really is out of this world and no words could do this acrobatic feat justice.
Food pass from male to female, who has turned upside down
to catch the food in the air.
Hen Harriers at Winter Roost
Over the winter months, it is possible to witness quite a number of Hen Harriers in the one plot of land, coming together in a communal roost every evening. They will typically go for wetland areas, particularly reedbeds and bogs, often along the coast. Such sites offer shelter and protection from the winter weather and their predators. Watching Hen Harriers criss-cross one another on a mild winter’s evening with the sun going down in the horizon is something that has to be experienced by anybody interested in nature or life. Though most Hen Harriers move to milder lowland locations to spend the winter, some Hen Harriers still remain around the mountains to look after their patch during the winter, so it is possible to still see Hen Harriers in upland areas of Ireland over the winter, though most have gone to the lowlands.
What you can do to help the Hen Harrier in your area
The Hen Harrier is an endangered species throughout much of its global range. In Ireland, it has suffered much decline and is particularly endangered due to loss of habitat by afforestation, with the national breeding survey of 2005 confirming just 132 breeding pairs, so the Hen Harrier is rarer than the Corncrake. Custodians of the countryside have a most important part to play in continuing to support this beautiful piece of Ireland’s natural heritage, which has been there throughout the ages, in the same way that the people of Ireland would look after our heritage and legacy of traditional music, dancing, folklore or football.
If anyone sees Hen Harriers they are encouraged to contact Barry O’Donoghue, who is working tirelessly to help make sure Hen Harriers survive in Ireland. This includes following Hen Harriers all over the country, all year round. Some birds have been tagged so that they can be recognised when seen again. For example, 2 chicks tagged in Kerry this summer have bee found in Galway and Cork already this winter, and another chick tagged in West Clare has travelled to Derry and Donegal.
Barry can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The sightings (of untagged as well as tagged birds) will help monitor the population to see if it is increasing or decreasing. The sightings can also help us trace where the birds are nesting and if we find the chicks, we can tag them to follow them and see how they get on through their lives, see where they go for winter, whether they return to where they were born the next summer or do they travel up the country or even abroad! So keep a look out when out and about!
Bird T, a Young Male Chick from West Clare.
With your help, we can find out so much about Hen Harriers which we have never known before and this will give us better information on how to protect the Hen Harrier to make sure it is a sight on the Irish upland landscape for generations to come!