The Northern Goshawk: A fearless predator of the North

On a cold January day my children met me at the car when I returned home from University to inform me that the coyotes had taken our free range rooster, “Phoenix.” They led me to the scene of the crime and the evidence seemed to support their conclusion. The frozen carcass told us that the kill had taken place the evening prior. There were coyote tracks leading from the cedar swamp in the back forty, across the open field and near the chicken house. But why did they not simply pick up the rooster and carry him back to the cover and concealment of the cedars? Why did they just take a chunk from his belly and leave the rest? 

My children gave Phoenix a proper Christian burial in the snowbank and we discussed how we could get a mature rooster for our laying hens before spring time. 

The next day I was met again at my car by wide eyes and a tale of adventure. “An eagle killed Rose!” Rose is a hen. 

“An eagle?” I asked. 

“We yelled at it and it would not go away so Asa(the brave 9 year old) ran at it and scared it off!” they replied. Since I was currently studying ornithology I took the children inside and began to formulate a new hypothesis from their description. “Is that what you saw?” I asked holding up a text book picture. “Yes! Yes, that the one!” The culprit that the witnesses picked out of the lineup was “Accipiter gentillis”; the Northern Goshawk.

I deduced that the coyotes had been drawn out of the woods by the smell of the Goshawk kill the previous night but just couldn’t muster the bravery to come as close to the man made structures as the Goshawk had done. 

I explained to the children that northern winters are tough on birds of prey and that this goshawk had expended a lot of energy to make these two kills of chickens twice his size (Phoenix was a mature Brahma rooster). “He is just trying to make a living like the rest of us.” I explained. 

My children decided they would make a funeral procession down to the bottom of our field, in plain sight but far from the chicken coop, to see if the Goshawk would return. Somewhere in those cedars he had been listening to their mournful dirge. Within half an hour he was back to his surrendered kills, feasting from the fruit of his labor. 

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The Northern Goshawk

The Northern Goshawk is a hearty, fearless predator that remains in the higher latitudes during the winter when other raptors have retreated to warmer climes. It’s name is derived from the old english word “Gos” meaning “Goose.” Therefore it is literally a Goose Hawk, so named for it’s willingness to pursue prey much larger than itself. Let us here consider the Northern Goshawks anatomy, ecology and behavior.

Description of Physical Adaptations

With a wingspan of 107-113 centimeters, and weighing in at 636-1364 grams, the Goshawk is the largest North American Accipiter (“Northern Goshawk Life History,” 2009).  Their tails are long and their wings are short, broad and rounded. These are adaptations for negotiating dense forests (Block, Morrison, & Reiser, 1994).  The females are generally larger than the males, which allows them to prey on larger species. This is in keeping with most raptor male to female size ratios.

Goshawk coloration varies from one geographical region to another. Generally, however, they are a steely grey on their upper parts with whitish lower parts (Block et al., 1994). In Europe their underbelly is more heavily barred while in Siberia it is almost completely white (“Northern Goshawk Life History,” 2009). One of the most characteristic features is their dark cap with white “eyebrows” that look like racing stripes over their eyes. In general , the larger females are more coarsely barred underneath than are the males (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2001)) making the males more striking in appearance as with many other birds.

Distribution

The Northern Goshawk is distributed across the Northern Hemisphere in both the Old and New World. In North America They inhabit the upper half of the continent, preferring mature boreal or mixed-wood forests. They clearly prefer colder climates and will remain in the far north all winter if prey numbers are high. They only migrate to the southern portions of their range during winters of low prey densities (Block et al., 1994).

Life History

The life history of the Northern Goshawk begins with the nest. Breeding pairs build their nest high in a deciduous tree on a primary horizontal branch close to the trunk. The nest is composed of small twigs and lined with bark and greenery (“Northern Goshawk Life History,” 2009). They prefer north facing perches and typically produce a clutch of  1-5 baby blue eggs. Young are able to move around the large nest when they are born. They are covered at this early stage of life in a white down. 

Adult Northern Goshawks are year round residents of the far north unless prey numbers decrease, in which case they will travel south for better feeding opportunities. They are typically monogamous, keeping the same mate year after year 75% of the time(Block et al., 1994). They are also territorial, keeping or returning to the same area year after year.

Ecology

There is some strong evidence that Goshawk numbers are on the rise in the Northeast. However, A strong correlation has been shown between Goshawk numbers and the density of Snowshoe Hare (Block et al., 1994)). The 10 year population cycle in the Snowshoe Hare has long been known to effect Canada Lynx numbers. Recent studies have shown that Northern Goshawk numbers lag behind those of the Snowshoe Hare in the same cyclic way the Lynx do and rise and fall on a ten year cycle with them. When the Hare population falls, there is increased nomadism and or migration, increased adult and infant mortality, smaller numbers of eggs in the nests, and partial to complete withdraws of the Northern Goshawks from the forests (Block et al., 1994)). 

Though they have never been considered a game bird, there have been bounties on Northern Goshawks in North America, due to their tendency toward barnyard fowl predation (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2001).

It is also worth noting that the presence of the Goshawk actually increases the number of grouse instead of depleting them as has been previously thought. This is accomplished via their predation on crows, chipmunks and red squirrels, which are notorious for consuming grouse eggs. This beautifully intimates the importance of predators to a healthy ecosystem and the survivability of other individual species (Meng, 1959).

 

Food Habits

Northern Goshawks prey primarily on large fowl, squirrels, rabbits and hares. They even make a meal of other raptors like owls and smaller hawks (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2001).

It has long been believed that Goshawks choose their nesting sights based primarily on the grouse populations in an area. Although they prey on rough and spruce grouse, this consist of a small fraction of their diet here in the East. Their primary fare in the East is crow, snowshoe hare and red squirrel. In fact, one New York study of 14 breeding pairs found that there were 83 crows killed compared to only 5 grouse kills during a time when grouse numbers were peeking (Meng, 1959).

Behavior

The hunting strategy of the Northern Goshawk consists of sitting on a high perch of a deciduous tree near an opening in the forest. When their quarry emerges, they make short, quick, silent dives, thrusting their spearlike talons into the unsuspecting prey. If the prey makes for cover Goshawks will willingly hurl themselves through the brush, crashing after them in peril of their own injury (“Northern Goshawk Life History, 2009). 

Stories of their persistence and bravery include chasing a hare for an hour, following hens into the hen house, slaying a hen at the very feet of the farmer, and reportedly pursuing it’s quarry under one woman’s skirt (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2001). 

The Northern Goshawk has a legendary reputation of fearlessness, particularly when it comes to protecting their young. Many who have strayed too close to nesting Goshawks have come away bloodied (“Northern Goshawk Identification,” 2009). It is little wonder that the dreaded Attila the Hun used the Goshawk as his coat of arms in battle.

Conclusion

The Northern Goshawk is an amazing raptor that enriches the human experience with his presence. As a predator he is courageous and fearless. As a celestial flier he is regal and handsome. As a mate and parent he is devoted and protective. As a link in the northern ecosystem he is critical to God’s intended natural balance.

We knew we were taking a risk by inviting the Goshawk to return to our property to feed on his kills. We thought this might encourage the Goshawk to continue his raids on our roost. As it turns out, he was just desperate for a meal to see him through the hardest weeks of our frigid winter and he took no more of our chickens.

 I saw him a few weeks later. I was down in the swamp calling coyotes by making wounded hare noises. He flew right over my head. Evidently he had mended his chicken-hawk ways and was back to the forest making an honest living.

My children learned that, although they could not pet the it or gather eggs from its nest, the Northern Goshawk was a critical element of the Northern Wilderness ecosystem. They also felt enriched by having him near our homestead. Thereafter the children christened him “Phoenix the fire bird” and celebrated every citing. For years following they kept a goodwill vigil for our friend.


One Response so far.

  1. Tammy says:
    I really like the story spinning here. The values that you and Amanda have taught the kids about creation, and the intricacies and balance of it will make them thoughtful stewards. It is refreshing.

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