Northern Goshawk - Accipiter gentilis
By Andy McCormick
Weight 2.1 lb (950g)
AOU Alpha Code NOGO
This aggressive hawk was prized by falconers for its speed of flight and courage in attacking prey.
The Goshawk is our largest and bulkiest accipiter. Its short, strong wings provide great acceleration, and its long tail offers quick maneuverability. It will often crash through brush and thickets when attacking prey, and it can overcome large birds such as grouse and crows, and mammals including rabbits, snowshoe hares, and squirrels (Squires and Reynolds). Goshawks typically hunt from a perch and can seem restless as they move from branch to branch. However, they will also forage in mixed habitats and open areas by flying low to the ground in search of prey.
The Goshawk has been popular for falconry for over 2,000 years and historical records include information from Japan and a Goshawk adorned the helmet of Attila the Hun (Squires and Reynolds). In a passage describing training for Mabel in H is for Hawk, the author describes the power of the bird. “My hand is hit, hard with a blow so unexpectedly powerful the shock is carried down my spine to the tips of my toes. … She is on the glove, mantling her great, barred wings over it, gripping it fiercely and tearing at the meat. …There is no mercy in that ratcheting, numbing grip (Macdonald, p. 108).”
The Goshawk shares the genus Accipiter, the general Latin name for hawk, with the Cooper’s Hawk and the Sharp-shinned Hawk, two other North American species. The species epithet gentilis, is also from the Latin for noble, or belonging to the same clan. It probably refers to an older usage meaning born with noble qualities (Holloway). Similar to other accipiters it is a bird of the forest showing great agility in flying through branches and thickets.
You can see video of a Goshawk perched and in flight at the Macaulay Library. Note that the size is similar to that of a Red-tailed Hawk, but the grey coloration sets it apart.
Some Goshawks breed in the eastern Cascades and Olympics and in mountains of Oregon and California. However, most Goshawks breed in forests of Canada and Alaska. In all areas they prefer old growth forests or forest stands of mature trees with good closure of the high canopy (Squires and Reynolds).
Goshawks are thought to mate for life. In a similar manner to other raptors the Goshawk will build a nest of sticks lined with green foliage in the major crotch of a tree. They prefer deciduous trees in a mixed forest. Usually, two to four bluish white eggs are deposited. Incubation, mostly by the female, lasts about five weeks. The male brings food to her on the nest and then later to the young. First flight is often in five to six weeks (Kaufman). Goshawks are particularly fierce in defending their nest and will also attack humans who get too close.
The Goshawk is not subject to any management and the population appears to be increasing in eastern North America as forestation is expanding. Timber harvest remains the biggest threat to Goshawks and forest managers are assigning protective areas around known nests. A small southwestern United States subspecies population is considered vulnerable due to fragmentation of their habitat on forest islands (Squires and Reynolds).
Photo credit: Zweer de Bruin. References available upon request from email@example.com.