Photo Gallery — WILD THINGS: Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)

Adults have a light gray breast with short black streaks, an orange or red eye, a white stripe above the eye, and a dark gray head and back. (James Taulman/Courtesy photo)

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This forest hawk is a member of the accipiter group, all having long legs, long tails, and short, broad wings which give it the agility to maneuver through its forest habitat. The Northern goshawk is a large hawk, about 2 feet long and having a wingspan of nearly 4 feet. Adults have a light gray breast with short black streaks, an orange or red eye, a white stripe above the eye, and a dark gray head and back. Juveniles are distinctively different, with dark brown spotting on the breast, belly, and feathered legs, a light gray eye, but retaining the light stripe above the eye.

James Taulman is a semi-retired wildlife biologist who travels observing wildlife in New Mexico and the southwest. (Courtesy photo)

Northern goshawks occur year round in primarily old growth coniferous forests from Alaska, throughout most of Canada and down into the Rocky Mountains from Idaho and Montana, through Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, and into New Mexico and Arizona. They are also found in the Cascade range of Washington and Oregon and into the northern Sierras of California. They also occur in deciduous forests of the far northeastern U.S. The range of this species is international; in addition to North America, it occurs through the northern forests of Europe and Asia. Goshawks typically perch silently high in a tree and wait for a potential prey animal to appear. Birds and small to medium sized mammals comprise the main diet. Mammal prey include tree and ground squirrels, as well as rabbits. Larger birds such as pigeons, grouse, crows, jays, woodpeckers, and thrushes are also common prey. Goshawks may also hunt while soaring above the forest canopy.

Goshawks are near the top of the food chain in their forest habitats. But they do fall prey to a few other species, such as great horned owls, golden eagles, bald eagles, and fishers, which are the largest of the martens. Turning the predatory tables, goshawks have also been observed to kill great horned owls around nesting sites. Home range is widely variable depending on prey availability and other factors, from about 2,000 to 10,000 acres.

Courtship and mating occurs in spring and the 2 to 4 eggs are normally laid by May. The male typically brings a food item to the female during courtship, and pairs may mate for life. Nests are often reused year after year, with some rebuilding, or males may construct a new nest as the female watches from nearby. The male brings food to the female when young have been born, normally leaving it near the nest for her to retrieve. Juveniles require about ½ to ¾ pound of food per day. Toward the end of the fledgling period one of the adults will bring food to the nest and the juveniles will either share or compete for it. The young leave the nest and perch on limbs nearby at 5 – 6 weeks after hatching, when flight feathers are at almost full strength. They exercise the wing muscles by flapping in place and test their foot and talon capture technique by grabbing at limbs and other objects. After leaving the nest the young perch in trees nearby and the parent screams to announce a delivery of food either to the nest or to the juvenile, also screaming to indicate its location. Two to three months after hatching the juveniles leave the nesting area for good and are completely independent, hunting on their own.

Mortality rates of 1-2 year-old goshawks in the U.S. has been reported to be around 20%. The mature forest habitat reduces exposure to agricultural chemical pollutants, but forest harvesting decimates breeding sites and results in population declines. Other mortality factors, such as predators or spring heat waves, also reduce population numbers. While goshawks are able to live into as long as the upper 20s, normal life span in the wild is 10-12 years.

The goshawk (derived from “goosehawk”), has been a historic favorite of falconers, prized for its ability to catch edible prey, and to pursue prey into thick brush. When capturing birds in flight the hawk often turns inverted and attacks from below. A 2010 paper in the Wildlife Society Bulletin studied the effect of removal of raptor species from natural populations for falconry and recommended no more than 5% of annual production of Northern goshawks should be “harvested” to ensure the survival of U.S. populations. The Audubon Society lists the vulnerability status of the Northern Goshawk as “High”, as a result of recent habitat losses throughout the mountains of the western U.S. and throughout most of Canada.

The photos here were taken during July and August, 2020. The nest was in a ponderosa pine tree. Over the winter the nest slowly fell apart and by the next spring had completely disintegrated, precluding reuse that year. The adult pictured is wearing a leg band, but the band number is illegible and the research group monitoring this individual is unknown to the author. Camera used was a Nikon P900.

James Taulman is a semi-retired wildlife biologist who travels observing wildlife in New Mexico and the southwest. 

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