The Northern Goshawk, more commonly known simply as the goshawk, is a large bird of prey, widespread throughout the northern hemisphere, with deciduous and coniferous forests their preferred habitat.
Goshawk, also known as the Northern Goshawk
Close up of a Goshawk perched on the ground
Goshawk on the hunt for prey
Close up portrait of a Goshawk
Family:Kites, hawks and eagles
48cm to 62cm
135cm to 165cm
600g to 2kg
Goshawks have slate gray upperparts that may have a brownish tinge. They have a darker charcoal cap, and a bold white eyebrow stripe above their orange-red iris, dark gray cheeks and a pale lower face and throat. Their underparts are grayish-white, marked with some darker barring, and their long gray tail is barred with wide black markings.
A goshawk’s legs are yellow, and its bill is powerful and hooked, and dark gray-blue with a yellow cere.
Females and males are alike in appearance, although females might appear slightly browner and have more heavily pronounced markings that may look barred across their breast and belly.
Juveniles are brown rather than gray, and may have some noticeable streaking on their upperparts as well as their breast and belly. Their eyes remain pale yellow until their second year, when they darken to the red-orange shade seen in adult goshawks.
Female goshawks are noticeably larger and heavier than males, reaching almost double the weight of their male counterparts by the time they reach maturity.
The largest females are almost the size of a buzzard, but despite their size, they are capable of streamlined flight and high-speed acceleration.
The alarm call of a male goshawk is a rapid ‘kak-kak-kak’ sound, heard in flight when mobbing a predator or defending their nest. In females, the pitch is lower and more rasping.
Wailing contact calls between mates can also be heard in a variety of situations, including food transfer and a recognition greeting.
Goshawks are opportunistic hunters and will catch and eat whatever is available from day to day. This might be mammals, birds or reptiles, including squirrels, rabbits, hares, bats, woodpeckers, game birds and lizards.
Prey may be cached for a future meal, and goshawks are regularly observed to take their catch to a plucking post where they remove any feathers or fur before eating.
The early diet of goshawk nestlings consists of smaller songbirds, or other prey that passes near to their nest site. Any larger prey items are torn into smaller pieces by the parents’ strong beach and talons.
Goshawk hunting for prey
Goshawks are ambush predators and require dense tree cover from which to swoop on their prey. Deciduous and coniferous forests are both used, with nests built in a range of tree species, including beech, maple, birch, aspen and oak.
They can tolerate high altitudes, up to the tree line, but during winter months, lower ground is preferred.
In Europe and Asia, goshawks are present from the British Isles in the west throughout Scandinavia and eastwards into northern Russia and Siberia.
In the south, the range extends across the Mediterranean region, the Middle East, Iran, the Himalaya mountains and eastwards as far as eastern China and Japan.
In North America, goshawks are resident all year round across central and southern Canada, and across the extreme eastern and western regions of the U.S. with some breeding also occurring in western Mexico.
Once the breeding season ends, some southward migration occurs, with goshawks spreading eastwards and southwards into almost all of the United States, except the far southeastern region.
Only approximate figures exist for the goshawk populations of individual countries, with Russia leading the table, with up to 110,000 pairs, and Romania, Germany and Fennoscandia estimated to have numbers in the tens of thousands.
In the US, it’s thought that western regions have higher densities of goshawks than eastern areas.
Northern goshawk in flight through the forest
In the UK, goshawks are fairly rare, with top estimates of around 600 breeding pairs. However, this is a vast improvement on their status around 100 years ago, as the species was extinct in England and Wales by the mid 19th century, and in Scotland by the start of the 20th century.
The population experienced a dramatic population revival after goshawks were released (or in some cases escaped) from captivity, so although rare today, they are far less so than they once were.
In the US, goshawks are widespread, but also far from common, and in certain eastern states, including Maryland and Pennsylvania sightings are becoming rarer each year.
Goshawks can frequently be seen perched at high altitude on tree tops, scouring the landscape for their next meal.
They are active during daylight hours, and can be spotted in flight between perches and are most broadly found in the western United States, including Alaska, and western Canada, and are particularly visible in wooded foothills of mountainous landscapes.
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, in Kempton, PA, is a traditional goshawk-spotting hotspot.
Top locations for spotting goshawks in the UK include Northamptonshire’s Kielder Forest, the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire and Hampshire’s New Forest National Park.
Close up of a Goshawk perched on a stump
Goshawks have an average lifespan of around 11 years, although data from ringing schemes shows the oldest recorded individual bird found was 19 years old.
Being a fearsome predator themselves, goshawks do not have many natural predators that are higher up the food chain than themselves.
In North America, great horned owls prey on both adult and juvenile goshawks, while in Europe, eagle owls will target nestlings. Other occasional predators include eagles, martens and wolverines.
In the UK, goshawks are protected as Schedule 1 birds under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, meaning that as well as being safeguarded against being killed, injured or captured, their eggs, young and nest sites are also given additional protection.
In the US, goshawks, their nests, young, eggs, and feathers are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
Globally, goshawks are categorized as a species of least concern. In the UK, they are listed as a green species in the British Birds of Conservation Concern list.
Population declines in parts of the US have led to the goshawk being listed as a species of concern in Washington, Idaho and Michigan, where special conservation efforts are ongoing to encourage population stability.
Northern goshawk hunting for prey in the woodlands
Nests are built in mature trees just below the tree line level. Little documentation exists of the nest-building process, but it’s thought that females build the nest, with occasional assistance from her mate.
Sticks are collected from around their chosen tree, and old nests may be repaired and reused in subsequent years.
The nest itself is a bulky platform of twigs, sticks and larger branches, with the inner bowl lined with bark and grasses.
Typical clutch size for goshawks is between 2 and 4 eggs. Eggs are rough and either pale blue to off-white, and do not have any patterns or markings.
Females undertake the majority of incubation, while males are observed to occasionally take a turn. After 28 to 37 days, the young hatch and remain in the nest for between 42 and 45 days before fledging.
Goshawks breed for the first time at either 1 or 2 years old, and remain bonded with the same mate throughout their life. Pairs spend winters apart, but reunite on breeding grounds the following spring.
Nesting Goshawk with young white fluffy chicks inside
At the outset of the breeding season, highly aggressive and territorial behavior is seen in male goshawks, challenging intruders and circling over the nest site to warn off any potential threats.
The aggressive nest defense peaks shortly after hatchlings become more active and start gaining independence.
Goshawks roost alone in the upper branches of the woodland canopy. During the breeding season, females will brood the young on the nest at night for up to 24 days.
Goshawk (background) fighting a Buzzard
Across most of their range in North America and Europe, goshawks are year-round residents and breed and spend winters in the same territories.
However, birds that breed in the northern extremes of Russia, Finland, Norway, Sweden and northern Canada migrate southwards when conditions make survival more challenging.
Goshawks are native to North America, breeding across central and southern Canada, and into the extreme northeastern and much of the western United States. During winter, the species becomes more widespread across the US, but tends to avoid the southeastern corner.
Goshawks are resident in the UK all year round, but are relatively scarce, with only an estimated 600 breeding pairs remaining.
Goshawk in flight, from below
In the UK, between 300 and 620 pairs of goshawks are resident breeders. The global population was estimated at 490,000 in 2004, with around 50 percent of this figure resident in North America.
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