harrier hawk

Summer or winter, Kahu, the harrier hawk, can be seen drifting over the countryside looking for something likely to eat. The hawks soar over the country in wide circles with a slow steady flight, remaining on the wing for hours without apparent fatigue. They fly slowly into the wind, alternately gliding and flapping their wings as they quarter the open country. They always look as if they do not have a care in the world although they are frequently harried by other birds. Magpies and spur winged plovers especially give them a hard time whether or not it is the breeding season. Indeed the well known ornithologist, WRB Oliver, reports that harrier hawks have been killed by magpies. I have certainly seen them forced to turn upside in flight to ward off a persistently aggressive spur winged plover.

But it is the wild turkeys around here that probably suffer most from the forays of the harrier hawk. I have watched them patrol the road verges where the turkeys like to nest in the fern and blackberry. They seem to be particularly fond of the eggs just about when they are ready to hatch. Nothing quite so delectable as a turkey embryo. The turkeys, however, are not altogether without resources. I have often watched the young ones scatter as a hawk approaches and hide in the long grass, staying perfectly still until the mother calls. Hen turkeys will also pair up in order to protect themselves and their young and will bravely fly up at hawks to prevent them from taking the young birds.

Pukekos also lose their young to the hawks as well as ducks. Even my chooks keep a wary eye on the sky when they are out wandering over the paddocks and just last week I watched a harrier hawk calmly and assuredly take apart a sparrow’s nest in the top of one of the avocado trees.

However the largest part of the hawk’s diet comes from road kills, possums, rabbits, hares and hedgehogs, which in turn results in very many of them being killed by high speed traffic. However, it has been reported that increasing numbers of people will now stop and remove dead animals to the side of the road to help stop so many hawks being killed.

The advent of European settlement resulted in a great increase in the type of country in which harriers flourish, open pastureland. In spite of widespread persecution by farmers and sportsmen who suspect that they kill large numbers of lambs and game birds, they are abundant, unlike our other two raptors who suffer a similar persecution. During the 1930s and 1940s, bounties were paid by Acclimatisation Societies and the claws of many harriers ended up as brooches. They did not become protected until 1985.

It is wonderful to watch the courtship flight of Kahu. The long breeding season begins in June when pairs soar together and evict intruders from their territory. On warm calm days from July until October, pairs are often seen doing their spectacular ‘sky dance’ or courtship diving, a series of U-shaped dives accompanied by loud calls.

About September- October, females start building the nest. I have never come across one of their nests but the books tell me it is a low platform of bracken, manuka, raupo and flax stalks, topped with rushes, cabbage tree leaves and grass. It is sited on the ground in swamps, in wet patches covered in rushes, in bracken fern, rank grass in young pine plantations or on road verges. Rarely are nests built on a platform in a tree. Pairs return to the same territory year after year.

Only the female incubates the eggs but the male feeds the female throughout the incubation period of 31-34 days. Only the female feeds the chicks although the male gathers food for the female and the chicks. When the chicks are older, both adults hunt and when the female is away the male occasionally drops food at the nest but does not stay to feed them. At two to three weeks, the chicks clamber out of the nest and scatter widely in the surrounding vegetation. They fly at about 45 days old. I have often watched the fledglings calling shrilly and pursuing their parents until they drop any food they might be carrying.

First winter harriers have brown eyes, dark brown plumage with an obvious white nape patch. As the birds get older the eyes and the plumage gets paler. Very old birds can appear almost grey white. Females are larger than the males.

The hawk appears in Maori mythology in the story of Maui, where we are told that the colour of its plumage is the result of it having been scorched by the fire of Mahuika when that being tried to destroy Maui.

Everywhere in the world raptors are in decline. It is good to know that Kahu, the harrier, is one raptor who is holding his own.

— Waiotahe Valley, 1998.

harrier hawk
Sub Species:

Other common names:  — 

Circus gouldi, swamp harrier, Australian harrier, marsh harrier, hawk.

Description:  — 

Native bird

55 cm., males 650 g., females 850 g., brown but becomes paler with age; juvenile dark brown with white patch on nape; yellow eye.

Where to find:  — 

Widespread and very common.

Poetry:  — 

Homai te kaeaea kia toromahangatia;
ko te kahu te whakaora, waiho kia rere ana.

Take the little mischievious sparrow hawk, but leave Kahu alone.

Te kahu i runga whakaaorangi ana e ra,
Te pera koia toku rite inawa e!

The hawk up above moves like clouds in the sky. Let me do the same, inawa e!

Illustration description: — 


Buller, Walter Lawry, Birds of New Zealand, 1873.

Buller, Walter Lawry, Birds of New Zealand, 1888.

Reference(s): — 


Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.

Oliver, W.R.B., New Zealand Birds, 1955.

Transactions of the NZ Institute, 22, 1889.

Page date & version: — 


Saturday, 24 May 2014; ver2009v1


©  2005    Narena Olliver,    new zealand birds limited,     Greytown, New Zealand.