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    Northern Goshawk Life History


    Habitat ForestsThroughout their range, whether at sea level or in alpine settings, Northern 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.Back to top


    Food BirdsNorthern 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, Three-toed, and Hairy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, Williamson’s Sapsuckers, and corvids including Blue Jays, Gray 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. Back to top


    Nest Placement

    Nest TreeNorthern 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, and California red fir, ponderosa pines, 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, she 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:28-38 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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    Behavior Aerial Dive (ground/talons)Northern 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. Northern 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, Northern 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.Back to top


    Conservation Low ConcernNorthern 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 declined between 1966 and 2015. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 400,000, with 27% spending part of the year in Canada, 23% in the U.S., and 1% in Mexico. Northern Goshawk rates an 11 on the Conservation Concern Score and is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. 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 Northern 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. Back to top


    Audubon, J. J. 1834. Ornithological biography, or an account of the habits of the birds of the United States of America. Vol. 2. Edinburgh, Scotland: A. & C. Black.

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

    Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

    Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

    Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski, Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

    Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

    Squires, John R. and Richard T. Reynolds. 1997. Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

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