I found my touchstone, the northern harrier, when I was a youngster living in southwestern Minnesota.
In every place that I've lived for any length of time, I've always found that graceful hawk. We've followed each other from the upper Midwest to coastal Virginia and back across the country to the Intermountain West.
After moving to Missouri, I was hopeful that I would see northern harriers, a species endangered in the state. My first year in Missouri passed with no sightings. I was a bit discouraged, but while driving by a prairie in southwestern Missouri, I saw an approaching shape flying just above the horizon, alternating heavy wing beats and buoyant glides.
Occasionally, the bird hovered and then moved on. It looked as if it might be a northern harrier. As it soared closer I could see the characteristic white patch of feathers on the bird's rump. A northern harrier in Missouri--I had reconnected with my touchstone.
I was sure of the species based on its flight pattern and its white rump patch. But to tell if it was male, female or a youngster, I needed to study it more closely. Northern harriers are unusual in the hawk world in that not only are there differences in sizes between males and females, but the sexes have different background colors.
The male is an attractive gray on top with lighter shading underneath and has black wing tips. The female is brown above and buffy with brown streaks below. Immature harriers are similar to females, except they are darker brown above and russet below.
A northern harrier has an unusual feature. When looked at head-on, northern harriers resemble owls: both harriers and owls have a ruff of feathers that makes their faces look flat.
This facial disk focuses sounds from the harrier's surroundings. Unlike many other species of hawks, northern harriers frequently use sound cues, like squeaks or squeals, as well as visual prompts, to locate and capture food.
Around the turn of the century, hawks were divided into two categories by farmers and others--good and bad. Good hawks ate agricultural pests, and bad hawks had a reputation for eating poultry or other livestock.
Farmers generally had a favorable impression of northern harriers because of the species' reputation of eating mice and other rodents. That was a pretty good observation from people who lived close to the land, and one that has since