Marsh Harrier

The largest of the harriers, the Marsh Harrier can be recognised by its long tail and light flight with wings held in a shallow 'V' as it drifts leisurely above the reed beds with steady wing beats between glides. A deadly silent assassin. It is distinguishable from other harriers by its larger size, heavier build, broader wings and absence of white on its rump. They breed in marshland and river valleys, with Norfolk being one of the best places to see them.

A Marsh Harrier is Buzzard sized but less bulky. The male has a light coloured head and tri-coloured wings, which are brown with grey underside patches and distinctive black wing tips. The underside of the tail is also grey. Female Marsh Harriers are almost entirely chocolate-brown, with the top of their head and front of their wings having a yellowish straw colour.

The items on a Marsh Harrier’s menu are many and varied. Everything from amphibians to small mammals (like rabbits) and the chicks of waterbirds (like ducklings) which live on or near marshes and wetland. The female, being larger, can target more substantial meals – including moorhens, water rails and wading birds. The Marsh Harrier’s hunting technique is ‘low and slow’. It quarters the ground like a Barn Owl, floating above the reeds looking and listening intently for movement below, surprise being their key to success. They can turn on a sixpence and drop on to their prey in an instant.

Marsh Harriers nest in reed beds. Before breeding, they do a breathtaking aerial display, including a sky-dance where the male mock attacks the female and passes food which she catches. Pairing usually lasts for a single breeding season, but some will remain together for several years. Marsh Harriers are mostly silent except during courtship when the male has a "kweeoo" call. Nesting starts in April. The female builds a nest from a pile of reeds and sticks on marshy ground while the male constructs 'false' nests nearby to show he could do it if she wanted (like doing the ironing). She lays 3-8 eggs 2-3 days apart, which hatch after 35 days giving an unevenly aged brood. Mum alone incubates the eggs while dad brings her food. Once hatched, dad continues to bring the food while mum feeds the young until they have grown and scattered in the nearby vegetation. The youngsters can fly after 35 days. Mum stays with them for a further three weeks, showing them how to hunt.

The Marsh Harrier is one of the success stories of recent times. In the 1800s, they were abundant in Norfolk and throughout East Anglia. However, they almost became extinct because of habitat loss from the draining of marshes for farmland and from persecution. They were down to one pair by 1971. They are Specially Protected and the restoring of wetlands has helped their recovery. There are now over 400 pairs. Most Marsh Harriers are summer visitors, with few staying over winter, migrating south to Southern Europe and Africa in the autumn.

Their Latin name is 'circus aeruginosis' where 'circus' is derived from the Ancient Greek 'kirkos', referring to a bird of prey's circling flight ('kirkos' means 'circle') and 'aeruginosus' is from the Latin for 'rusty'. A rusty coloured circling bird, which it isn't really.


The Raven is the largest of the crow family. It is huge, really huge, and hangs out in desolate places, like sea cliffs, mountain crags, upland moors, and the Tower of London. As the Tower was where people got their heads chopped off and Ravens were often seen eating carrion on battlefields (eating the dead bodies), it understandably features in a lot of legends associated with death. Even their collective name is an unkindness. Superstition has it that if the Ravens leave the Tower of London, the Crown and Britain will fall.

The Raven is Buzzard sized. It is all black with shaggy throat feathers, a flat-looking head and huge black, people eating bill. The long wings have fingered ends, and the tail is a distinctive diamond shape. The Raven can look like a cross in the sky. They have a powerful, majestic, 'don't mess with me, I ate your ancestors' flight. Flying Ravens can be distinguished from other crows by their tail shape, larger wing area, and a more stable soaring style, which generally involves a lot less flapping. Their call is a deep, loud "kronk, kronk".

They feed mainly on the ground, eating mammals, small birds, carrion, insects, grains, berries, fruit, and eggs. They are clever enough to store food when it is plentiful and have been seen calling wolves to the site of a dead animal. The wolves open the carcass, leaving the scraps more accessible for the clever Raven.

Once paired, Ravens tend to nest together for life. They will have 4 or 5 nest sites in their territory and select their favourite one in February. The twig nests are usually on a cliff edge or in a tree. The 3-7 eggs hatch after 20 days and the youngsters can fly 45 days later but depend on their parents for a long 4-6 months.

There are 8,000 breeding pairs, mainly found in the western half of Britain, especially Wales. In winter, northern birds will move south, forming large communal roosts outside the breeding season. Ravens can be very long-lived, especially in captive or protected conditions. Individual birds at the Tower of London have lived for over 40 years, though normal Raven life expectancy is 23 years.

Their Latin name is 'corvus corax' from the Latin 'corvus' for 'raven' and the Greek 'korax' meaning 'raven' or 'crow'.


The Peregrine’s fortunes have varied. Falconers have used Peregrines for over 3,000 years, beginning with the nomads of central Asia. In the Middle Ages, they were held as a symbol of royalty and nobility, and harsh punishments protected them. Later, when shooting became popular, gamekeepers persecuted them. In the Second World War, they killed Peregrines to protect the homing pigeons carrying secret messages. Then pesticides like DDT affected the calcium in their eggshells, causing them to break before the chicks could hatch. Thankfully, these pesticides are now banned, and the Peregrine is once again protected. Its numbers are steadily recovering and you can regularly see them nesting on top of tall city buildings, cathedrals being a firm favourite, showing off how noble they are. Although they nest on buildings, cliffs and crags, they are a bird of the open countryside.

The Peregrine is crow sized with a dark blue back, finely spotted buff underparts, and sporting a black fighter pilot’s moustache on its white cheeks, giving it a hooded look. It has long, broad-based pointed wings with a relatively short tail. Their underwing is barred, stripy looking. The female is noticeably larger than the male. The Peregrine’s silhouette is quite distinctive, and it flies with swift wing beats followed by long glides.

Their favourite food is a nice fat Woodpigeon, though they eat birds of all sizes from Blue Tits to Black-headed Gulls. They pick their prey from a high perch or by circling high in the sky, then shooting down like a Stuka in a fast diving ‘stoop’ to catch it, ripping it apart with their talons or knocking it senseless. In a ‘stoop’ the Peregrine is the fastest bird in the world, reaching speeds of over 200mph! They will even dive on to small mammals like rabbits, eating them in extreme weather conditions when birds are scarce. Its athleticism, eagerness to hunt, and easiness to train has made it a very popular bird with falconers.

Peregrines mate for life. The courtship involves breath-taking aerobatics. The male will drop food for the female to catch in flight. Nothing like a juicy Collared Dove for dinner or a Skylark snack to cement a good relationship. The female chooses the nest site, where she scrapes a shallow hollow in which to lay her eggs. The 3-4 white to buff eggs, with red or brown markings, are laid in March. Mum does most of the incubating. Dad helps during the day and keeps guard at night. The eggs hatch after 29 days. Both parents feed the chicks (‘eyases’) who can fly 45 days later but depend on mum (called a ‘falcon’) and dad (called a ‘tiercel’) for a further 2 months. To breed successfully Peregrines need a large open area with plenty of food to hunt. Mum and dad will vigorously defend their nest against other predators, issuing a warning “keck-keck-keck” alarm call, then killing anything that gets too close. In one recorded instance, a Snowy Owl killed a chick and the larger owl was in turn killed by a stooping, angry Peregrine parent. The message is simple; don’t mess with a Peregrine’s chick.

Away from the nest a Peregrine is solitary. There are 1,700 pairs in Britain, with the strongholds of breeding birds being in the uplands of the north and west and along rocky seacoasts. Northern birds move south in winter and many move into coastal areas where there are plenty of seabirds for Christmas dinner. The oldest ringed Peregrine lived to be 18 years old. Their Latin name is ’falco peregrinus’. Both the English and Latin names mean ‘wandering falcon’. The Latin ’falco’ comes from ’falx’, meaning ‘sickle’, as a falcon’s silhouette is sickle-shaped with their long, pointed wings.