Pallid harrier (Circus macrourus)

French: Busard pâle
Spanish: Aguilucho Papialbo
GenusCircus (1)
SizeLength: 40 – 48 cm (2)
Wingspan: 95 – 120 cm (2)
Male weight: 315 g (2)
Female weight: 445 g (2)

Classified as Near Threatened (NT) by the IUCN Red List 2006 (1), and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

This migratory bird of prey, like other harriers, has distinct male and female plumage. The pallid harrier male has very pale grey upperparts and is white below. In flight, the distinctive black wing tips can be seen (2). The female is brown, with a paler belly and a heavily marked breast and head (2). Young pallid harriers have colouration similar to the female, except with a rusty coloured underbody (2). The genus name of the pallid harrier, Circus, refers to the male’s circling, acrobatic flight display, undertaken to impress a female during courtship (4).

The pallid harrier’s present breeding range extends from the Ukraine and southern Russia, to north-western China and western Mongolia (2) (5). Formerly, the breeding range used to be much greater, extending further into Eastern Europe (2). It winters mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, and from Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, east to south China (2).

The pallid harrier breeds in grassy plains and dry steppe, often close to small rivers, lakes and marshlands (5). In winter it occupies similar habitat, but can also be found on unirrigated wheat fields, open woodland and mountain plateau, making occasional visits to marshes and rice paddies (2).

The pallid harrier preys on small mammals, birds and large insects. These include voles, mice and gerbils, larks and pipits, grasshoppers and locusts (2). It spends a large part of its day hunting (2), foraging over 20 kilometres from its roost (5). It flies low over the ground, dropping down to capture prey spotted on the ground (2). Tall grass provides valuable cover as the harrier steals up on flocks of larks feeding on the ground (5).

The pallid harrier nests on its own, or in a loose group of three to five pairs. The nest is a pile of grass situated on the ground in meadows, scrub or swamps, protected by vegetation (5). Typically four to five eggs are laid in May and June (2), which are incubated for 30 days. Usually only two or three young survive to fledge at 35 to 40 days old. It is generally the female that incubates the eggs and broods the nestlings, while the male provides food for the chicks (5).

In August and September, the pallid harriers leave their breeding grounds and undertake the great migration to their warmer wintering grounds (2). The European populations migrate mostly to Africa, whilst the Asian populations migrate both to East Africa and southern Asia (5). Here they will stay until March or April, when they begin the long journey back to the breeding areas (2).

Globally, pallid harrier populations are drastically declining (2), particularly in Europe, where numbers declined by up to 30 percent from 1970 to 1990 and the species continued to decline from 1990 to 2000 (6). The declines are so significant that the pallid harrier no longer occurs in Moldova, Belarus and Romania, where it used to breed (2) (6).

In the past, harrier populations were reduced by persecution as ‘vermin’ and the extensive use of pesticides and rodenticides (5). Over the last 10 to 20 years, persecution and use of damaging chemicals has decreased in its breeding range, but the use of harmful pesticides, rodenticides and other toxic chemicalscontinues in many parts of the winter range (5). Possibly the greatest threat to the pallid harrier at present is the conversion of grasslands to agricultural land, and degradation of grasslands by burning, cutting and overgrazing. This is occurring throughout the range of the pallid harrier, destroying vital breeding, roosting and foraging habitat (5).

The pallid harrier is listed as a Species of European Conservation Concern Category 3, Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Annex II of the Bonn and Bern Conventions, and Annex I of the EU Birds Directive. However, despite the number of lists it appears on, the pallid harrier remains rare, poorly studied and declining (5). In 2003, an International Action Plan for the pallid harrier was developed, with the aim of conserving the bird, and promoting population recovery to a level at which it no longer qualifies for Near Threatened (5). This has led to the proposal of numerous conservation actions, including encouraging conservation of grasslands, carrying out surveys and research on the pallid harrier, and lobbying for legislation that bans the use of harmful pesticides in its winter range (5). The pallid harrier now requires definite action, rather than any further listings, plans or proposals, to ensure its future.

For further information on the pallid harrier see Galushin, V., Clarke, R. and Davygora, A. (2003) International Action Plan for the Pallid Harrier. BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK. Available at:

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  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2011)