By Richard E. Blackwelder
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The Celt, Macgillivray, and the Lowlander, Sir William Jardine, were both able to draw on personal experience, as did the Northumbrian Selby. Through Macgilliway's eyes we are introduced for the first time to the sheer delight of a field naturalist enjoying the sight of a pair of harriers in the sky. In 1836, Macgillivray wrote in his Descriptions of Rapacious Birds of Great Britain: 'Should we, on a fine summer's day, betake us to the outfields bordering on extensive moor, on the sides of the Pentland, Ochil or the Peebles hills, we might chance to see the harrier, although hawks have been so much persecuted that one may sometimes travel a whole day without meeting so much as a Kestrel.
Like Heysham, he took young from the nest and kept them alive until he was able to demonstrate the plumage change of a yearling male, from brown to predominantly grey, carefully noting the progress of moult between August and October, when the bird was killed and put in his museum. He even went so far as to 'pluck some wing and tail feathers' from the living bird to force premature change, in June. Only a decade before, Gilbert White still referred to the 'Ring-tail Hawk' as though it were a distinct species.
Yet light colouring is by no means universal in male harriers, the most obvious exception being the Black Harrier, which is blackest on its underparts. Colour patterns can only be understood as a result of a balance of factors. While the conspicuousness of many male harriers may indeed have a visual importance, as I have suggested, and almost certainly has a hunting advantage,1 the range of variation from the extremes of the Pallid to the Black Harrier, appears to be influenced by climatic factors.