Marsh hawks, or northern harriers, are common Kansas winter residents, especially around large wetland areas. They are familiar to even novice wildlife watchers, since they are tireless hunters and hunt on the wing. They soar close to the ground, wheeling and gliding in search of prey. Like owls, they have a disk-like face that helps them hear prey moving in the habitat. Mice and small birds make up most of their diet, but in winter months, they eat what’s handy.
Often, that’s red-winged blackbirds that often form huge roosts in cattail marshes. Sick or weakened blackbirds make easy pickings for harriers. And though they’re not known as scavengers, they will dead or dying waterfowl where winter populations assemble. I watched a marsh hawk yesterday fly from carcass to carcass, plucking and feeding on freshly killed geese in shallow water at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area.
The bird fed for an hour as I filmed up and down the dike roads. Finally, its crop was the size of a softball, and it was satisfied for the day. In a place like Cheyenne Bottoms, home to several hundred thousand birds for the winter and having Central Kansas’ best water supply, food will be plentiful for the lucky hawks and eagles that eat them. That makes winter an easier season, and helps clean up nature’s carrion as well.