Cinereous harrier (Circus cinereus)

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderFalconiformes
FamilyAccipitridae
GenusCircus (1)
SizeLength: 42 – 50 cm (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

Deriving from the Latin for ashy, the common name of this medium-sized bird of prey is a reference to the adult male’s grey plumage (4) (5). This grey colouration extends across the upperparts, with a slightly darker area on the back. By contrast, the underparts are white, with bold, rufous barring. The adult female is easily distinguished from the male, with dark brown upperparts edged and spotted with paler markings, and grey-tinged, dark-barred flight feathers and tail. The underparts are white and heavily streaked brown on the throat, with brown barring on the chest becoming rufous below. Both sexes have a bright yellow, bare patch of skin at the base of the blackish-grey bill and orange-yellow legs. The juvenile cinereous harrier resembles the adult female, but is blackish-brown above and creamy buff below, with dusky streaking rather than barring (5).

The cinereous harrier has a wide distribution, occurring from the southern border of Colombia, south along the Andes, through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and western-central Argentina. Its range also extends eastwards through Paraguay, south-east Brazil and Uruguay (5). A small breeding population was believed to occur on the Falkland Islands, but has declined to such an extent that the islands are now considered to harbour only vagrant individuals (5) (6).

The cinereous harrier occupies open country, in particular moorland, marshes, pastures and rushy hollows in grassland and scrub, from sea-level to elevations of 4,500 metres. It also occurs in the high-altitude grassland regions of the central Andes, most commonly near vast lakes at elevations above 3,000 metres (5).

Described by Charles Darwin as having an “elegant and soaring flight” (7), the cinereous harrier is frequently encountered gliding over open habitats, scanning the ground for prey (5). It mainly feeds upon various mammal and bird species, including the downy chicks of coots and waders, but will also take reptiles, frogs and insects (5).

This species is normally silent, except during the breeding season, when the male and female make rapid, chattering calls while engaged in aerial, courtship displays and while defending the nest. Eggs are usually laid after mid-November, and the young are fledged by January. The nest is a heap of rushes, grass or other vegetation, up to 40 centimetres across and 30 centimetres deep, which is placed on the edge of bed of rushes or in damp grass or scrub (5).

The cinereous harrier is mainly sedentary, but populations from Patagonia migrate northwards between April and May, returning to the breeding grounds between September and October (5).

There are no major threats to the cinereous harrier at present (1). While it is scarce in some areas, it has a large range and a global population estimated to be between 10,000 and 100,000 individuals. The most significant decline has occurred on the Falkland Islands, where, as a result of losses associated with shooting and the destruction of natural grasslands, this species no longer breeds (5).

While there are no known conservation measures currently in place for the cinereous harrier (1), it does occur in a number of protected areas throughout its range (8).

To learn more about bird of prey conservation:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact: arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2009)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Blake, E.R. (1977) Manual of Neotropical Birds, Volume 1. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  3. CITES (June, 2009)
    http://www.cites.org
  4. Davidson, G.W., Seaton, M.A. and Simpson, J. (1989) Chambers Concise Dictionary. W & R Chambers, Cambridge.
  5. Ferguson-Lees, J. and Christie, D.A. (2001) Raptors of the World: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Prey of the World. Houghton Mifflin, New York.
  6. Falklands Conservation (June, 2009)
    http://www.falklandsconservation.com/wildlife/birds/FI-RareBirds-03.pdf
  7. Gould, J. and Darwin, C.R. (1839) Birds Part 3 No. 2 of The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Smith Elder and Co, London. Available at:
    http://darwin-online.org.uk
  8. The World Database on Protected Areas (June, 2009)
    http://www.wdpa.org