A male Hen Harrier elegantly flying, like a grey ghost, back and forth above a misty moorland is a sight that once seen is never forgotten. They are a hunter of the open uplands, keeping as far away from people as possible.
The Hen Harrier is a slender bird of prey, smaller than a Buzzard. The male is a ghostly blue-grey with long black fingered wing tips, a long tail, a white rump (like a House Martin), and white underparts. The females are larger and dark brown. They have an owl like appearance on their face. The flight is buoyant and low, just one or two metres above ground, when quartering (zig-zagging) over the ground for prey holding their wings in a shallow V.
Hen Harriers use their ears as well as their eyes to find prey amongst the dense moorland vegetation. They eat small mammals and birds, so becoming the enemy of gamekeepers (who sometimes illegally kill them) for eating the grouse and partridge chicks.
When courting, the male performs a spectacular sky dance, passing food to female in the air or dropping it for her to catch. A male has a territory of more than a square kilometre and might have multiple partners. Where a male has mated with several females, all the nests tend to be close to one another as he is a bit of a lazy dad and doesn't want to go too far when delivering food. Nesting begins in April and the nest is made of a pile of heather on the ground. The 4-6 eggs hatch after 30 days and are incubated by mum while dad brings the food. The eggs are laid one or two days apart so their is a noticeable age gap between the young. After two weeks they are big enough to be left on their own, and both parents hunt for food. The youngsters can fly 35 days later but stay with mum for several weeks to learn all about quartering. Hen Harriers are silent apart from when approaching a nest when they make a yikkering call.
There are 600 pairs in Britain and they are specially protected. Their number plummeted as a result of persecution in Victorian times when they were almost exterminated from Britain. They still face threats from illegal persecution by game keepers and egg collectors. Planting of conifer forests on moorlands has also restricted the available habitat.The Hen Harrier is partially migrant as northern birds move south and all birds leave their moorland breeding areas for lowland or coastal areas in winter where they may even be joined by others from the continent. Large groups can gather in a single roost.
Their Latin name is 'circus cyaneus' where 'circus' is derived from Ancient Greek 'kirkos' for 'circle' which refers to a Hen Harrier's circling flight (and also where we get circus from as circus rings are traditionally round). The 'cyaneus' is Latin for 'dark-blue'. The English name Hen Harrier comes from the fact that the once used to hunt free-range hens! Female hen harriers are also known as 'ringtails' due to their distinctive tail banding.