50. Circus cyaneus

No. 50. Circus Cyaneus,* LIN.


As far as is yet known, this species does not breed in India, south of the Snowy Range, but I have been assured, that a female of this species, or the next, was observed sitting on eggs in a marshy plain, at the end of Lake Tsoomourari in Thibet.

In Europe, its nidification is well known. Mr. Yarrell says, " The nest is placed on the ground; the materials collected to form it are but few, consisting of small sticks and coarse grass ; the eggs are four or five in number, white or of a pale skimmed milk blue, one inch eight lines long, (1.67) against one inch four lines (1.33) in breadth. The male sits occasionally during the period of incubation, and has been shot on the nest. The young are hatched early in June, and are, at first, covered with white down."

Mr. Hewitson says that in England, it breeds chiefly in marshy districts, and that the nest, when situated in low lands, is formed of so large a quantity of flags, sedge, and reed, as to raise it eighteen inches or two feet above the surface, so as to protect the young and eggs against sudden floods. Sir William Jardine tells us, that in a country possessing a considerable proportion of plain and mountain, they always retire at the commencement of the breeding season, to the wildest hills, and that during this time, not one individual will be found in the low country. The nest is made very frequently in a heath bush, by the edge of some ravine, and is composed of sticks, with a very slender lining ; it is sometimes also formed in one of those places called Scars, or where there has been a rush on the side of a steep hill, after a mountain thunder shower : here little or no nest is made, and the eggs are merely laid, on the bare ground, which has been scraped hollow. In a flat or level country, some common is generally chosen, and the nest is found in a whin or other scrubby bush, sometimes a little way from the ground.

Mr. Hewitson adds, that the eggs which are most frequently of a spotless, bluish white, are yet often slightly marked with yellowish brown, mixed with a purplish hue, and in some specimens with more distinctly defined spots of light brown. His figure of an egg of this species measures 1.79 X 1.43. The average dimensions appear to be about 1.75 by 1.33.

The Hen Harrier appears to occur throughout Europe, in North America,* in North Eastern Africa, Syria, and Turkey in Asia, from Smyrna to Babylon, in Afghanistan, throughout the more temperate portions of the Russian possessions in Asia, and in Northern China.

In India the Hen Harrier, is pretty common, in the cold weather at any rate, about the outer ranges of the Himalayahs, from Abottabad to Kumaon, and possibly further east, and stragglers have been obtained in Baraitch (Oudh,) Meerut, Bareilly, Gourgaon, Etawah, Saugor, Nagpoor, Chandah and Goona, but except in the Himalayahs, or within 20 miles or so of their feet, its occurrence appears to be somewhat exceptional. The adult male of this species can always be distinguished from that of Swainsoni, by its perfectly pure, unbarred, and unspotted, upper tail coverts, and by its full coloured grey blue throat, foreneck, ear coverts, cheeks and sides of the neck, all of which parts, in Swainsoni, are pale grey or greyish white. The females are more difficult to separate ; as a rule, however, the upper tail coverts in these also are pure white, and where this is not the case, what markings there are, lanceolate central stripes, very different from the broad bar, or cross bar-like spot at the ends of the upper tail coverts of both the adult male and female of of Swainsoni. True that in the young Swainsoni, these marks on the upper tail coverts are often obsolete, but then the young of Swainsoni, differ altogether in plumage from the adult females, (while those of Cyaneus closely resemble that of the old females of that species,) and have the whole under parts uniform, streakless, rufous buff, or rufous. Moreover, the facis, if I may use the expression, of the females of the Hen, and pale-chested Harrier, are as a rule very different to the eye, although it may not be easy to explain the difference in words. In both, there is a large yellowish white patch, below the eye, purest in the pale-chested Harrier, and below this, from the base of the lower mandible, reaching to, and enveloping the whole of the ear coverts, there is a broad dark band, contrasting more or less with the pale patch below the eye, above, and the pale throat below. Now in the Hen Harrier, the contrast is generally much less marked than in the other, because the eye patch is not so white, and because the feathers of the band are only a pale dull rufous, with narrow, commonly very narrow central brown streaks, giving the band a streaky, or striated appearance, while in the pale-chested Harrier, the contrast is usually very marked, the eye patch is often pure white, and the feathers of the dark band, are deep brown, only very narrowly margined, with rufous, which margins, are insufficient, unless the patch be looked closely into, to break the general uniformity of the colour. - : As for the difference commonly pointed out, viz., that the female of Swainsoni has six brown bands, and that of Cyaneus four, (Bree,) on the tail, it holds good in many cases, but I do not find it constant ; I have now before me two Hen Harriers, one from England, and the other from Mussouree, each with six brown bars, including the one nearly hidden by the upper tail coverts, and two pale chested Harriers, with only five such bars, similarly including the one nearly hidden by the coverts.

The tarsus of the Hen Harrier doubtless averages considerably more than that of the pale-chested one, while as I shall notice further, that of Montague's Harrier is so much shorter, that this alone suffices to separate it from all our other Indian species. Another apparently constant difference between the Hen Harrier and the pale-chested Harrier in both sexes, and at all ages, when the wings are perfect, is that in the former, the fourth quill is always the longest, while in the latter, the fourth quill is always shorter than the third, often by fully half an inch.

Circus Cyaneus

From Male
To Female
From Female
Length 17.1 18.9 19.7 21.6
Expanse. 37.4 40.2 44.2 47.2
Wing. 12.2 13.4 14.3 15.7
Tail from vent 8.1 8.8 9.2 10.4
Tarsus 2.55 2.78 2.92 3.17
Foot, greatest length. 2.9 3.2 3.7 4.1
Foot, greatest breadth. 2.48 2.57 3.2 3.6
Mid Toe to root of Claw. 1.20 1.31 1.47 1.53
Its Claw straight. 0.52 0.67 0.62 0.71
Hind toe. 0.62 0.71 0.7 0.8
Its claw, straight 0.64 0.73 0.76 0.83
Inner Toe. 0.72 0.84 0.82 0.88
Its claw, straight 0.61 0.70 0.76 0.82
Bill straight, from edge of cere to point. 0.6 0.7 0.71 0.77
Bill a long Curve, ditto. 0.7 0.8 0.8 0.86
Bill from gape. 1.08 1.16 1.25 1.39
Bill width at gape. 0.96 1.04 1.5 1.9
Bill height at margin of Cere. 0.33 0.39 0.38 0.42
Distance by which closed wings fall short of end of Tail. 1.9
2.3 2.06
Distance by which lower Tail Coverts fall short of end of Tail. 3.3 3.8 4.3 4.9
Weight Oz 10 Oz 13 Oz. 15 Lboz 1.3
Length of cere on culmen 0.42 0.49 0.45 0.51

(Five males and seven females, measured and weighed.)

The fourth primary is the longest. The 1st is from 3.4 to 3.8 shorter, the 2nd from 0.85 to 1.25, and the 3rd from 0.05 to 0.21, shorter than the 4th. Exterior tail feathers from 0.7 to 1.4, shorter than central feathers.

DESCRIPTION. - : Legs and feet, bright, somewhat orange yellow, claws black. Irides yellow. Bill bluish black; cere, yellow, in some a wax yellow, in others tinged greenish.

PLUMAGE. - : Adult male. The upper parts, (except the first six primaries and the upper tail coverts,) together with the chin, throat, cheeks, ear-coverts, sides of the neck, and a portion of the upper part of the breast, greyish blue, varying in tint according to age, (the young birds being darker,) but always palest on the wing-coverts and tail, purest on the sides of the neck, and more or less tinged with fuscous on the scapulars, crown of the head and nape; the feathers of the nape pure white, except just at the tip, the white bases showing through more or less ; the feathers of the top of the head and nape often with narrow, central, somewhat indistinct, brown centres, the traces probably of immature plumage; the forehead, and a line over the eye, whitish; traces of a silvery line under the eye, and over the ear-coverts, and tiny silvery streaks, are mingled with the pure blue grey of the ear-coverts and cheeks; the upper tail coverts pure white, the lateral tail feathers growing paler on the outer webs, until these in the two exterior feathers are pure white except just at the tips; the inner webs of all but the two central feathers white, less and less strongly tinged with brownish grey, as they recede from the centre, and with from 6 to 8 imperfect, transverse, brownish grey, bars, which in old birds become almost obsolete, and traces of some of which are generally to be met with, on the outer webs also, of the two or three exterior feathers, on each side. The lower breast and the rest of the under parts, are white, suffused most strongly on the breast, and faintly elsewhere (except in quite old birds which are sometimes pure white below) with very pale bluish grey. The first 6 primaries are black or blackish brown, the outer webs, (especially towards the tips) and often the tips themselves, more or less suffused with silver grey; the inner webs white at the bases; the rest of the primaries and secondaries, silver grey on the outer webs and tips, white or greyish white on the inner webs above the tips, in some mottled with grey, and mostly shewing traces, near the shafts, of imperfect brown, transverse bars.

Female. - : The forehead, a narrow band over the eyes, the lores, cheeks and a line over the ear-coverts fulvous white. The crown of the head, occiput and nape, reddish fawn, the feathers with long, rich brown, central stripes. The ear-coverts and a line from them to the gape, similar, but of a somewhat duller colour. The feathers of the nape, white for the basal two-thirds ; the white often shewing through. The feathers of the ruff a somewhat lighter reddish fawn, with narrow, dark brown, central stripes, the hind-neck, and upper back, a mixture of reddish and yellowish fawn colour, the feathers with broad, umber brown, central streaks; the scapulars, interscapulary region, lower back, and rump, umber brown, more or less glossed with purple, lighter in the old birds, darker in the young. The feathers of the rump, generally narrowly tipped with pale rufous ; the upper tail coverts, as a rule, pure white but in some cases exhibiting lanceolate, rufous, or rufous brown spots on the shaft. The tail which, quite at the base, is white, has the central feathers brown ; deep brown in younger birds, and greyer and paler in older ones, narrowly tipped, with white or slightly rufous white, and with four or five, broad, transverse, bars of grey, or greyish brown. The lateral tail feathers are similar but more broadly tipped with white, and with the grey or brownish grey bars changing generally as the feathers recede from the centre, into more or less clear, rufous, white, and the external feathers of all being often much tinged with rufous on their external webs towards their bases, and the brown inter-spaces being generally darker and purer on their inner webs. The lower part of the neck and breast is a mixture of rufous, and yellowish white, each feather with a broad, central, brown, or rufous brown, stripe; the shades of colour in the lower parts varying much in different individuals. The abdomen, vent, and lower tail coverts, yellowish white with brown shafts, and a more or less conspicuous ovate, rufous brown spot at the tips; the sides and flanks, are rufous or rufous brown with large white or fulvous white, double spots or imperfect bars; the tibial plumes hanging down over the tarsus, are similar to the lower tail coverts. The lesser wing-coverts, are more or less tipped with pale rufous fawn; many of the Indian ones, are broadly but imperfectly barred with the same colour; and many of the exterior scapulars have one or two large roundish spots of fulvous white on the outer webs, not very visible until the over-laying feathers are lifted.

The quills are a somewhat pale umber brown, more or less tinged with grey, on the outer webs, below the emarginations, in the first few quills, and white or rufous white on the inner webs above the notches, and with from three to five dark brown, transverse, irregular bars on the inner webs, traces of which are visible on the outer webs also.

Young. - : The young resemble the female pretty closely, but have the irides brown, and the colours more marked, the brown being deeper, and the rufous of the head and neck brighter; the upper tail coverts have a reddish brown, linear, lanceolate, central streak, and the tail banded with rufous. The males do not commence to assume their distinctive plumage until the autumn of the second year, and in its transition stage according to Montague, the plumage of the female, remains about the neck, the smaller coverts of the wings, the thighs and part of the abdomen intermixed with the male plumage, after the change has been elsewhere effected.

* Some ornithologists contend, however, for the specific distinctness of the North American birds,

Mr. Swinhoe gives it, I see, from Amoy and Takoo.

My Scrap Book
Hume, Allan Octavian, ed. My Scrap Book: Or, Rough Notes on Indian Oology and Ornithology. Vol. 1. 1869.
Title in Book: 
50. Circus cyaneus
Book Author: 
Allan Octavian Hume
Page No: 
Common name: 
Hen Harrier
Hen Harrier
Circus cyaneus
Vol. 1
Term name: 

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