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NATURAL HISTORY

NORTHERN GOSHAWK } Accipiter gentilis atricapillus
FAMILY: Accipitridae

A separate goshawk subspecies, the Apache goshawk (A.g. apache) may occur in Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Mexico south of the Gila River.

DESCRIPTION: The goshawk has short, powerful wings, a long, rudder-like tail, and protective eye tufts that give the secretive bird an acrobatic ability to spin around trees and quickly dive under shrubs and brush to seize prey. Both sexes have a short, dark, hooked beak, red eyes, a blackish head and face, and a gray body.

HABITAT: The species needs mature and old-growth conifer forests, though some occupy aspen or willow stands in more open areas. Each pair of nesting goshawks requires roughly 6,000 acres of forest to feed and rear its young.

RANGE: One subspecies (Queen Charlotte) has evolved to live within the dark coastal rainforests of insular Alaska and British Columbia, and possibly the Olympic Peninsula. Otherwise, northern goshawks inhabit most mature forests types west of the Continental Divide from Canada and Alaska through every western state into southern Mexico. They occur at lower densities in southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States.

MIGRATION: Northern goshawks — primarily juvenile birds — migrate south from late August until late November.

BREEDING: In the spring breeding season, the goshawk has a gull-like mating call and puts on a spectacular rollercoaster display. Females have been known to breed in immature plumage. They lay one to five eggs, and young leave the nest after about 35 days but may remain in their parents’ territory for up to a year.

LIFE CYCLE: Young begin to wander at 50 days of age and reach full independence at 70 days; most fledge around the 45-day mark. The species’ lifespan may be up to six years.

FEEDING: A voracious predator of squirrels, jays, flickers, rabbits, snowshoe hares, and songbirds, the goshawk relies on surprise as it flies from a perch or hedge-hops to catch its prey unaware. While its prey is often smaller than the hunting hawk, this bird will also kill larger animals, up to the size of marmots.

THREATS: Adults defend their territories fiercely from everything, including passing humans; but what the northern goshawk is unable to defend are the mature and old-growth forests it calls home, most of which have been severely depleted by a century of logging. While most regions of the Forest Service have enacted guidelines that prohibit cutting around goshawk nest sites and limit cutting within goshawk home ranges, national forests in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming have failed to sufficiently protect the bird. In the northern Rockies, projects that affect the bird or its habitat include timber sales, road construction, prescribed burns, recreation development, and general construction.

POPULATION TREND: Goshawk numbers are closely tied to the extent of mature and old-growth forests. The historic and current population size is not known, but has certainly been reduced by logging. The bird is now very rare in coastal forests from southern California to Washington. Its numbers appear to be slowly increasing in the eastern United States as mature forest cover increases. The highest densities of goshawk are found on Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau, which supports the best remaining stands of mature ponderosa pine forest in North America.

Photo © Robin Silver