Saturday, November 04, 2006

Rapt attention


The Northern Harriers have been cruising the soybean fields since August. This spectacular bird who lends its name to a fighter jet, is notable for its flight pattern, which is best described as a "lazy glide" often no more than 3 feet off the ground. They inhabit marshes and fields and build their nests on the ground. To capture prey, they pounce to the ground, twisting their way down from their low-flying position. The harrier's face resembles an owl more than another hawk; the face feathers are arranged in a disk-like pattern to help the bird hear its prey--mostly small mammals and birds--rustling in the grass. They're an easy hawk to identify in the field not only because of the curious flight pattern but because of the large distinctive white patch just above the tail feathers.
According to published literature, the northern harrier is an uncommon breeder in Missouri. Destruction of prairie has taken its toll on harriers and many other grassland birds. The winter population in the southeast at least seems to be stable; harriers outnumber turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks combined. I used to get reprimanded while driving because I would instinctively pay more attention to hawks on telephone lines than traffic. But for the past few days I've been able to watch four harriers from upstairs as they deftly pluck all the mice from the recently-harvested soybean field. I have heard from several neighbors that after soybean harvest, every country mouse will find its way into the nearest building. Between the harriers, kestrals and coyotes, the mice haven't had much of a chance to even cross the road. For that, I am forever grateful to our winter residents.

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