The Face of an Owl

Sometimes, even the most barren and overcrowded of places provides a refuge for wild things

By Rob Breeding

I climbed Table Mountain with my daughter and the dogs, just before Christmas. The mountain, a mesa actually, sits just west of Denver. We hoped we were hiking off holiday calories, both those already consumed and those we were about to.

The mesa is less than a half hour from downtown, so it was crowded, by my standards at least. In addition to nearby Denver, the mesa overlooks the Coors Brewery in Golden. Other foothill communities wash up against its base.

With all those Denverites walking the trails it’s no surprise Table Mountain isn’t crowded with wildlife. For me, walking in nature is nice, but walking in nature when there are wild creatures about, that draws me into a place.

But on this mesa the only animals were the human kind. Then I saw a familiar face, though, truthfully, I didn’t get a good look at its mug. Still, the flying form left no doubt: it was a northern harrier, the hawk with the face of an owl.

I became acquainted with northern harriers in the fields near the Kidsport Complex in Kalispell. I used to walk the remnants of those grasslands with Jack, my first bird dog, practicing on wild Hungarian partridge and pheasants. I’d seen northern harriers before that, but other than noticing their long tails and distinctive white rump patch, I hadn’t given them much thought. They fell into the category of raptors smaller than red-tailed hawks, but bigger than kestrels, a category that, for me, has always been a broad area of ignorance.

Chasing birds near Kidsport changed that. The raptors were our constant companion, coursing over the grasslands with distinctive style. Harriers fly low to the ground, only occasionally flapping their long wings, which they otherwise hold in a distinctive V over their bodies.

At times when we walked on the low hills above the soccer fields I looked down at the birds as they skimmed the yellowed seed heads of the grassy slope below.

Sometimes harriers almost seemed to stroll along with us on our walks.

All this contact led me to broaden my knowledge of this midsized raptor, so I googled the hawk with the distinctive white rump.

That’s when I learned of the hawk’s owl-like face where the feathers form a dish-shaped receiver to amplify sound. That face is hard to see on a bird in flight, but once I’d seen photos I began to pick up hints of the dish while watching hunting birds.

Harriers use this extra amplification to hunt by sound, as well as sight, which explains the low glide path. They prey on mice and other small mammals, which they detect by listening for the critters scurrying about in the grass. It’s a skill they share with owls, though they don’t benefit from the silence of nighttime.

The size of a full-grown pheasant or Hun protects them from harriers, but not the chicks. These hawks occasionally take on bigger prey like ducks or rabbits, sometimes drowning larger critters when they are hunting near water. Maybe an adult partridge isn’t fully safe, but a fully grown rooster would probably give a harrier all it could handle.

With a little knowledge, harriers are easy to pick out of the midsized hawk muddle. Besides the rump patch, the birds also have disproportionally long wings and tails, the longest relative to their body size of all raptors. Harriers are also notable for the differences in plumage between males and females. Females are dark brown while males are dusty gray. Both sexes have the rump patch.

This made identification quick and certain on that bird on the mesa, where the low scrubby grass was perfect habitat for a prowling northern harrier. Sometimes, even the most barren and overcrowded of places provides a refuge for wild things.

Rob Breeding is the editor of

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