The Montagu's Harrier has a breeding range that has changed over time, and is subject to occasional extensions and contractions. Mainly confined now to warm temperate parts of Europe and Russia, the species is strongly migratory and winters in sub-tropical Africa and India, and around the Mediterranean Sea.
It is essentially a lowland species, and breeds readily in dry areas, such as heath land, sand dunes and young plantations. It does not tolerate disturbance, and avoids areas that are subject to any form of human habitation and use.
Its prey is mostly small mammals, mainly rodents. It also takes, as the occasion demands, small birds - open country passerines and occasionally the young of ground-nesting birds. Small reptiles and large insects are also taken.
Mostly a silent bird, there can be heard during the breeding season and occasionally near communal roosts, a high-pitched "yik-yik-yik " and some rather similar calls.
Status and behaviour in the wild
The Montagu's Harrier is possibly the most slender and elegant of its genus. Its body and wing form can, at times, cause it to be mistaken for a falcon. In flight it is the most buoyant of the Harriers and is reminiscent of the flight pattern of a tern - the slow glides interspersed with half a dozen wingbeats of such power that the bird lifts visibly.
Its hunting method is typical of its genus, quartering the land at low speed and low altitude, but with the ability to drop quickly and silently onto its prey once located.
Being a ground-nesting and roosting bird, this species, as well as suffering the persecution and indiscriminate shooting that has been the lot of many raptors over the last century or so, falls prey to the ravages of farm machinery (except where the farmer is aware of their presence and sufficiently interested to take some positive action). As a result of these problems, numbers of this species in much of Europe, and particularly in Britain, are only now recovering from disastrous losses. This is due largely to efforts by conservation groups, and concerned landowners.
At 2 to 3 years of age, a pair is formed that sometimes lasts for the lifetime of the birds, although there is evidence not only of pair-changes in successive years, but also of occasional polygyny during a single season.
The courtship ritual involves the pair circling together to a great height, and playing a number of mid-air games including food-passes, diving, rolling and talon presentation.
The nest is constructed on the ground, in natural or cultivated vegetation, moorland, young forestry plantations or even sand-dunes. Building, mostly by the hen, takes about 4 days. The hen also takes the brunt (if not all) of the incubation duty, which lasts for about 30 days per egg - up to around 40 days for the full clutch of up to four or five eggs.
The young remain in the nest for about 3 weeks, when they start to crouch in surrounding vegetation, although still very much under the protection of the adults until they fledge at bout 42 days. Full independence is achieved about 14 days after fledging.