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American Goshawk Life History



Throughout their range, whether at sea level or in alpine settings, American Goshawks nest in mature and old-growth forests with more than 60% closed canopy. In the East, goshawks seek out nest sites in mixed-hardwood forests where beeches, birch, hemlock, and maples dominate. In South Dakota and the Southwest, they nest in ponderosa pine forests. Farther west, breeding sites include Douglas-fir and pine forests, aspen groves, and stands of paper birch (in Alaska). Goshawks often build nests near breaks in the canopy, such as a forest trail, jeep road, or opening created by a downed tree, and prefer sites with a creek, pond, or lake nearby. Goshawks hunt in the forest, along riparian corridors, and in more open habitat, such as the sagebrush steppes of Nevada, where their broad, powerful wings can quickly generate speed to ambush prey.

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American Goshawks eat a wider range of prey than other accipiters, including birds, mammals, and reptiles, as well as insects and occasionally carrion. Tree and ground squirrels, snowshoe hares, jackrabbits, and cottontails are the main mammal prey. Goshawks also eat large birds such as Dusky, Sooty, Spruce, and Ruffed Grouse, along with Pileated, Black-backed, American Three-toed, and Hairy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, Williamson’s Sapsuckers, and corvids including Blue Jays, Canada Jays, Steller’s Jays, and crows. Look for piles of feathers on the forest floor that may indicate a low “plucking perch” near a goshawk nest.

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Nest Placement


American Goshawks usually choose the largest trees in a stand for nest sites, placing the nest next to the trunk on a large horizontal branch or in a primary or secondary crotch. In the East and Midwest, goshawks choose beech, maple, oak, and aspen trees for their nests. Western birds build nests in conifers, such as Douglas-fir, white fir, California red fir, ponderosa pine, western larch, and western hemlock, along with deciduous trees including aspens and paper birch.

Nest Description

During courtship, the female goshawk builds the nest or repairs an existing nest, sometimes with help from the male. Goshawks often reuse nests from previous years or appropriate nests of other accipiters. Working for an hour or so in the morning, the female gathers sticks from the forest floor or breaks them off trees near the nest site, carefully choosing material less than an inch across and carrying the sticks in her beak. Once constructed, the birds line the nest bowl with tree bark and greenery, and may continue adding fresh green material throughout the nesting period. Finished nests measure 3–4 feet long, 1.6–2.2 feet wide, and nearly 2 feet high. The interior cup of the nest is about 9 inches in diameter and 3 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-4 eggs
Egg Length:2.0-2.6 in (5.1-6.5 cm)
Egg Width:1.6-1.9 in (4.1-4.9 cm)
Incubation Period:28-32 days
Nestling Period:34-35 days
Egg Description:

Bluish white, sometimes slightly blotched.

Condition at Hatching:

Eyes open. Chick covered in short white down, sometimes tinged gray on head and back.

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Aerial Dive (ground/talons)

American Goshawks alternate short flights with brief stops at elevated perches as they search for birds and small mammals in the forest, and cruise along forest edges or over shrub habitat seeking prey. They glide quickly and silently, striking unwary quarry feet first. If detected, these reckless hunters fly at high speeds in pursuit of fleeing prey, maneuvering through the forest using their long tail as a rudder, crashing through brush and even chasing a potential meal into the water if necessary. American Goshawks also occasionally stalk prey on foot. They can capture mammals such as snowshoe hares more than twice their weight. Breeding pairs perform a sky dance as part of their courtship, with the male diving at the female high above the forest canopy or chasing her through the trees. Pairs often then fly together in an undulating glide above the trees—one of the few times they are relatively easy to spot. Breeding pairs copulate quickly and often (sometimes more than 500 times per clutch), with frequency peaking 30-40 days prior to laying eggs and again just before and during egg laying. Once the chicks hatch, males provide the bulk of the food while females guard the nest site. Although otherwise secretive, American Goshawks can be fierce and vocal when defending their nestlings, and will attack human intruders and kill neighboring raptors they perceive as threats, including owls and hawks.

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Low Concern

American Goshawks are widespread but uncommon, and their secretive nature makes it hard to estimate population trends. The North American Breeding Bird Survey indicates populations on the continent held steady between 1966 and 2021. Before the taxonomic split in 2023, Partners in Flight estimated the global breeding population of Northern Goshawk (which included American and Eurasian Goshawks) at 420,000 and rated the species a 10 out of 20 on their Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. Goshawks were once shot and trapped because they were seen as a threat to domestic poultry. In the 1930s, Pennsylvania and other states paid hunters a $5 bounty for each goshawk they killed. An amendment to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act extended protection to raptors in 1972. Today, timber harvest is the main threat to breeding goshawks, which depend on mature trees and forests with relatively intact canopies for nesting and foraging. Goshawks appear to favor larger tracts of forests. Nesting birds are sensitive to logging activities such as building roads and loading and skidding felled trees. The U.S. Forest Service includes the goshawk on its “Sensitive Species” list for many regions; this requires that proposed management activities, such as logging, consider potential impacts on goshawks. Falconers have trained goshawks as hunting partners for more than 2,000 years. State and federal rules regulate the number of wild goshawks taken for falconry through a strict permit process. The impact of falconry on wild North American goshawk populations is thought to be minimal.

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Bird Banding Laboratory (2022). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2022.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, U.S. Geological Survey, Laurel, MD, USA.

Crossley, R., J. Liguori, and B. Sullivan. (2013). The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors. Princeton University Press, New Jersery, USA.

Partners in Flight (2021). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2021.

Sauer, J.R., Link, W.A., and Hines, J.E., 2022, The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Analysis Results 1966 - 2021: U.S. Geological Survey data release,

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

Squires, J. R., R. T. Reynolds, J. Orta, and J. S. Marks (2020). Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

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