When a satellite-tagged hen harrier dies of natural causes


When a satellite-tagged hen harrier dies of natural causes, what happens next?


The satellite tag continues to transmit, leading investigators to find the dead bird and determine the cause of death. The tag doesn’t suddenly stop transmitting and the bird’s corpse doesn’t suddenly vanish in to thin air, even several days after death.

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One of this year’s young satellite-tagged hen harriers, Hermione, has been found dead on the Isle of Mull. She died of natural causes in late September and her body (and sat tag) has been retrieved, just a few kilometres from where she’d fledged in August. Full story on the RSPB Skydancer blog here.

No driven grouse moors on Mull. No mysterious disappearance of Hermione. No sudden cessation of signals from her satellite tag. No suspicious circumstances. Just a straightforward natural death and a straightforward recovery of her body, aided by the signals from her still-fully-functional satellite tag. Amazing, eh?

Photo of Hermione in July by Paul Haworth


19 thoughts on “When a satellite-tagged hen harrier dies of natural causes”

  1. Yes very telling natural death and no problem with tag. Sad loss, but in this case not pointless it has underlined the strange ‘disappearances’ of harriers and tag transmissions on grouse moors.

  2. Sad news but just nature. Just a question I have always wondered though, are the satellite transmittors solar powered? If a bird died and fell backwards, and its back & transmittor faced the ground would it still transmit?

  3. To me this story is incomplete, because we’re just told that Hermione “died of natural causes.” What natural causes? If no ACTUAL cause was determined, how can we be so sure?

      1. Like anyone I can guess as to what the causes might have been, but why does the publicity about this bird’s death have to be so vague in terms of causation? Is it the case that the assessment is based simply on lack of positive evidence of persecution? If so, I would expect the cause of death to be more accurately described as “unknown” rather than “natural.” As the corpse had been partially eaten, how could it be possible to rule out an act of criminality? It’s not only grouse moor keepers who will shoot raptors, and your typical ‘marsh cowboys’ will shoot anything that comes within range. Anyone who watches harriers knows that they can be worryingly confiding at times, making them vulnerable. Hence why they have been so easily wiped out on English grouse moors.

  4. How many more dose this happen to that we don’t hear about or the grouse moors get the blame for??? Quite a few I would think

    1. Bob

      Not sure what it is you are trying to say. Hermione died, bird recovered along with sat tag. HHs on or near grouse moors go missing no bodies and no tags. Physical presence and ‘natural causes’ are both explanations. Missing birds etc. is unexplained so obviously it is questioned?

      Your point and reasoning behind attributing ? with accusations of blame? Do you mean dead tagged birds found with transmitters still working or ‘missing’ tagged birds never found – I wonder, what explanation do you offer for the later?

  5. Bob
    Sounds like you’re in favour of grouse moors. If this is the case, you wouldn’t appreciate any reasonable answer.

  6. Tragic!But what a truly natural way to end Hermione’s life.No suspicious circumstances! A very rare natural death of a Hen Harrier.You beauty Hermione RIP.

  7. Some on here need to get out more. A young harrier lasts a matter of weeks after leavng the nest the researchers and the RSPB locate the body with a still operational sat tag investigate and decide it died of natural causes and the self appointed “experts ” in here start to question if persecution was involved. Knowing the ground and the locals I would rule out foul play as they hardly shoot the crows and don’t shoot the ravens or sea eages that go for their lambs. The ” secret ” SE nest on the coast is left in peace so why would they bother with a HH that does not bother them and they like watching. The sporting rights to the ground are held by Argyll Estates and they don’t seem to use them so persecution is a long shot. The ground is visited by eco -tourists and researchers and very little else as it is crap walking and there is more wildlife on the farmed area next to it. Perhaps the fitting of the tag contributed to the birds death but if so we will never hear about it. It would be interesting to see if sat tagged birds have a higher percentage death rate than untagged birds as was rumoured with the harrier tagging done in the ast 25 years.

    1. Well tagged harriers certainly have a high rate of mortality over sporting estates, I believe nearly 79% of them, and tag has usually stopped transmitting. Where tag didn’t stop as with Bowland Betty body recovered with clear indication of Persecution. If our birds of prey and other wildlife weren’t being hammered in the first place we wouldn’t need to tag or ring birds – incidentally the GWCT are involved in tracking woodcock, but I haven’t seen any of their pals accuse them of being ‘birds botherers’. Pretty pathetic when those involved in trying to protect our birds of prey from the real botherers’ with their pole traps, carbofuran, decoys and lead shot get accused of being the problem. Do you think the emergency services are responsible for road accidents?

      1. As usual you are missing the point . A sat tagged harrier is found dead with an active tag the experts conclude natural causes and some in here start to question if foul play is involved. This bird lived its short life in an area with several pairs of breedng harriers and no history of persecution. Ths bird was not over a sporting estate so I have no idea what you rant above is about. As to your point or should that be lack of a point about the emergency services you are just being silly. I will repeat my position I am against persecution of raptors and if I suspected poisoning I will report it and appear for the prosecution if required. Any harrier nests I find I report. Your outburst above does this site no favours as does your rant on Bert Burnetts FB page . As a question about the safety of sat tags seems to get you so worked up it makes me wonder if there coud be a problem. The tag problems I was talking about above were just colour coded wing tags used in work carried out by the late Mike Madders and others.

        1. Harrier with tag died away from grouse moor, tag keeps transmitting, bird’s body found. Hen harriers and eagles with tags, tag ‘stops’ working over grouse moor – rare occasion it doesn’t e.g Bowland Betty bird found was illegally persecuted, in its case died from blood loss so almost certainly got away from its killer before they could find body and destroy evidence. That’s the point you seem to be not getting, or pretending not to. Do you honestly think any impartial jury would weigh up all the evidence and not believe there is very strong and suspicious link between ‘disappearance’ of tagged raptors over grouse moors, which funnily enough Don’t have a history of loving birds of prey. Annoyingly probable culprits or their supporters try blaming the bird’s disappearance on people desperately trying to protect them the ‘bird botherers’ that’s my emergency services analogy – thought it was rather apt – not bothered if you thought it was silly to be honest, if other commentators here did I would be. As there was no statement re cause of death does leave a little, a very little, possibility there was foul play, which in this case I doubt very much myself, but strange no indication given of actual cause which would have been better. Ranting on Bert Burnett’s FB page would be like taking coals to Newcastle – instead it seems I was casting pearls before swine. I’ve had a FB friend request from someone in the fieldsports sector who stated they did not want to be my ‘friend’, they just wanted to discuss the relevant issues. Pleased to say now we are pretty good pals. Not bothered if I’m not one of Bert’s buddies though somehow.

  8. hector, I’ve read through the article and the comments again, and it appears that I may be one of the “self appointed experts” to whom you refer. No-one else appears to be questioning the rationale behind the decision to put this death down to natural causes, apart from one other whom I know to be a “real” expert. If I remember correctly, I think you have cast doubts over my scientific credibility previously, so if that is the case I’m not surprised at your latest contribution.

    In actual fact, I was merely curious as to how the researchers and RSPB came to their conclusion, because it seemed slightly unusual that no mention of cause of death was given, only that it was “of natural causes.” I suggested it might be more appropriate to determine the cause as “unknown.” Perhaps I’m just being pedantic, but the term “probable natural causes” would have been sufficiently accurate. Hardly an aggressive challenge to their conclusion! Contrary to your own view, I think it’s important that we should always question whether foul play is concerned in any harrier death, and I’m sure those involved in this case considered that as an option to investigate. I still haven’t heard a full explanation.

    You seem to have a problem with commenters you describe as “self appointed experts.” I suggest that many of the contributors to this blog are at least equally expert to the best RSPB staff, so it’s unfair and unrealistic to describe people in this way simply because they disagree with your point of view. You seem to presume rather immodestly that you are in a position to judge, but all you said against me as an individual previously was along the lines of abusive bad judgement and taunting me for not having written up a couple of papers yet. If you were more aware of my contribution to ornithology and conservation “in real life” you might think otherwise. My apologies if I’m confusing you with someone else. I’m really not interested in all this personality stuff, let’s stick to the issues and rational arguments.

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