- 20.9–25.2 in
- 40.6–46.1 in
- 22.3–48.1 oz
- Females can be nearly as large as a Red-tailed Hawk; males are only slightly larger than a female Cooper’s Hawk.
- Autour des palombes (French)
- Gavilán azor (Spanish)
- The name goshawk comes from the Old English word for “goose hawk,” a reference to this raptor’s habit of preying on birds. Falconers have trained goshawks for more than 2,000 years; the birds were once called “cook’s hawk” for their success at snaring meat for the pot.
- Like all accipiters, Northern Goshawks display “reversed sexual size dimorphism”—females are up to 25% heavier than males. The size difference means that between them, pair members can feed on a wider range of prey. When nesting, the larger female warms the eggs while the male is responsible for bringing food.
- The Northern Goshawk is found across northern America and Eurasia. Most of the Eurasian races have much more dark barring on the chest than the American form, but about half of all Siberian goshawks are nearly white.
- John James Audubon was impressed by the Northern Goshawk’s hunting prowess, writing “When the Passenger Pigeons are abundant in the western country, the Goshawk follows their close masses, and subsists upon them. A single Hawk suffices to spread the greatest terror among their ranks, and the moment he sweeps towards a flock, the whole immediately dive into the deepest woods, where, notwithstanding their great speed, the marauder Succeeds in clutching the fattest.”
- Northern Goshawk pairs build and maintain up to eight alternate nests within their nesting area. Even with options available, they may use the same nest year after year, or may switch to a new nest after a brood fails. Pairs may add fresh conifer needles to the nest during breeding. Aromatic chemicals (terpenes) in the needles may act as a natural insecticide and fungicide.
- The Northern Goshawk is well known for its fierce defense of its nest. It commonly attacks people and other animals that approach the nest too closely.
- Attila the Hun wore an image of a Northern Goshawk on his helmet.
- The oldest known Northern Goshawk was at least 17 years, 7 months old, based on banding records from Michigan.
Throughout 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.
Northern 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.
- Clutch Size
- 2–4 eggs
- Number of Broods
- 1 broods
- Egg Length
- 2–2.6 in
- Egg Width
- 1.6–1.9 in
- 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.
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.
Northern 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.
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.
Northern 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 21% between 1966 and 2014. 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. Goshawks rate an 11 on the Conservation Concern Score and are not on the 2014 State of the 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.
- Squires, J. R. and R. T. Reynolds. 1997. Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis). In The Birds of North America Online, No. 298 (A. Poole, Ed.). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.
- Audubon, J.J. 1834. Ornithological Biography, or an Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America, Volume II, p. 242. A & C Black.
- Crossley, R., J. Ligouri, and B. Sullivan. 2013. The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
- North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Committee. 2014. State of the Birds 2014 Report. U.S. Department of Interior, Washington, DC.
- Oregon Falconers Association. Legal aspects of falconr.
- Partners in Flight. 2012. Species assessment database.
- Snyder, H. 2001. Hawks and allies. In The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, C. Elphic, J. B. Dunning, Jr., and D. A. Sibley (eds.). Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
- USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2015. Longevity records of North American Birds.
- USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2014. North American Breeding Bird Survey 1966–2014 Analysis.
Resident to short-distance migrant. In some regions, younger birds disperse from northern breeding grounds while older birds remain behind. Some populations also make short winter movements to lower elevations. Larger-scale irruptions of Northern Goshawks moving from north to south occur approximately once every 10 years when snowshoe hare and grouse populations drop.
Find This Bird
Northern Goshawks are secretive birds that typically live in large tracts of forest, so they are hard to find. They are vocal near their nests, but they are also fiercely defensive and have been known to attack people who come too close to a nest—please think twice before you approach a calling bird. Remember that goshawks don’t typically occur in populated areas, so any accipiter that you see in town or near a bird feeder is more likely a large Cooper’s Hawk than a goshawk. Your best chance of finding a Northern Goshawk is to spend time in mature forest being as quiet, observant—and patient—as possible.