Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk

Accipiter gentilis

by Bernie


I'm currently reading, "M is for Hawk" by Helen Macdonald. It's about her struggling to come to terms with grief at the loss of her father and her lifetime obsession of training and taming a wild Goshawk.

The Northern Goshawk is the largest member of the genus Accipiter. The female is a lot larger than the male. The female is similar in size to a Buzzard, and the male, a Carrion Crow. They have similar markings to a female Sparrowhawk and are often mistaken for them when the latter are seen in gardens plucking their prey and when in flight when the size difference is difficult to tell.

Goshawks are usually seen flying at treetop level, a few relaxed wing beats, relieved by short straight glide (unlike the Sparrowhawk it does not lose height when gliding). Adult Sparrowhawks have light yellow eyes, adult Goshawks have orange. Goshawks have proportionally longer and more pointed wings, rounded tail-corners, broader tail base and slightly longer necks. (See illustrations for colouring.)

* Accipiter – any hawk of the genus Accipiter, typically having short rounded wings and a long tail.


The Goshawk was indigenous to Ireland and the UK but became extinct in the 19Century because of specimen collectors and persecution b gamekeepers. But in the 1960s and 1070s falconers started a quiet unofficial scheme to bring them back. The British Falconers' Club worked out that for the cost of importing a Goshawk from the continent for falconry, you could afford to bring in a second bird and release it. There are around 450 pairs now spread around various forests in England and Wales. According to Wikipedia there are considerable numbers in Kielder Forest, Northumberland, which is the largest forest in Britain.

Though she is not too specific in her location, Helen Macdonald writes of observing a pair in Breckland, not far from the American Airbase of Lakenheath.

North American Goshawks have vertical barring whereas European have horizontal. The Northern Goshawk appears on the flag of the Azores. The Archipelago of the Azores, Portugal, takes its name from the Portuguese language word for Goshawk (açor) because the explorers who discovered the archipelago thought the birds of prey they saw were Goshawks; later it was found these birds were common buzzards!!

The Goshawk is diurnal like many other raptors such as eagles, buzzards and harriers. It is a widespread species that inhabits the temperate parts of the Northern Hemisphere. It is the only species in the Accipiter genus fund in both Eurasia and North America. It is mainly resident but birds from colder regions migrate south for the winter. In North America migratory Goshawks are often seen migrating south along mountain ridge tops in September and October.


Northern Goshawks can be found in both deciduous and conifer forests. They seem to thrive only in areas with mature, old growth, woods and are typically found where human activity is relatively low.

They can be found at almost any altitude but recently are typically found at high elevations due to a lack of extensive forests remaining in lowlands across much of its range. The main threat internationally today is loss of habitat – forest clearing.


The Goshawk is a powerful hunter, taking birds and mammals in a variety of woodland habitats, often utilizing a combination of speed and obstructing cover, i.e. hedgerows, reedbeds, on the edges of forests to ambush birds and mammals. The most important species are small mammals and birds found in forest habitats. Their prey species are quite diverse, including pigeons and doves, pheasants, partridges, grouse, gulls, assorted waders, woodpeckers and other raptors including European Honey Buzzards, owls and Kestrels! Mammal prey includes hares, squirrels, rats, voles, mice, weasels and shrews. Prey is usually smaller than the hawk but occasionally they kill much larger animals up to the size of geese and foxes! Northern Goshawks sometimes cache prey on tree branches or wedged in a crotch between branches for up to 32 hours. This is done primarily during the nesting stage.


For their size the Goshawk is a secretive bird and difficult to observe. The best time to see them is in the spring when they perform a spectacular ‘undulating flight display' as part of their courtship. At this time, the surprisingly gull-like call of this bird is sometimes heard. As in all Accipiters, communication is primarily vocal, since visual displays are difficult in the species preferred densely vegetated habitats. They are usually monogamous; once they are ‘paired up' a breeding pair will mate for life.

Nests are usually in a tall tree and are bulky being up to a metre in both width and depth. The clutch size is usually 2-4 eggs laid with an interval of 2 to 3 days between eggs. The female is the main incubator, the male provides food. Incubation takes up to 38 days. The young leave the nest after 35 – 46 days and start trying to fly another 10 days later. The parents continue feeding them until they are about 70 days of age. The young may remain in their parent's territory for up to a year of age, at which point sexual maturity is reached. During the nesting period adults defend their territories fiercely from all intruders – including passing humans! Predators at the nest include formidable species that can climb, as well as fly, to the tree. In the States that includes Black Bears. In Europe, martens, wolverines, eagles, great horned eagles and eagle owls. Goshawks are most under threat from hatching until their fledgling stage, and are rarely threatened by other animals outside their own species when adult.


The name Goshawk is a traditional name from Anglo-Saxon: gôshafoc, literally "goose hawk".

In falconry history, it seems only the Japanese used it to take geese and crane species, traditionally elsewhere falconers have used I to prey on rabbits, pheasants, partridges and medium-sized waterfowl.

In ancient European falconry literature, Goshawk were often referred to as a yeoman's bird, or the cook's bird due to their utility as a hunting partner catching edible prey, as opposed to the Peregrine Falcon, also a prized falconry bird, but more associated with nobleman and less adapted to a variety of hunting techniques and prey types found in wooded areas. The Northern Goshawk has remained equal to the Peregrine Falcon in stature and popularity in modern falconry.

Goshawk hunting flights in falconry typically begin fro the falconer's gloved hand, where the fleeing bird or rabbit is pursued in a horizontal chase. The bird often applies a binding maneuver, where, if the prey is a bird, the falcon inverts and seizes the prey from below. The Goshawk, like other accipiters, shows a marked willingness to follow prey into thick vegetation, even pursuing prey on foot through brush.

H is for HAWK

This is an extract from her book: "goshawks resemble sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble housecats. Bigger, yes. But bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier and much, much harder to see. Birds of deep woodland, not gardens, they're the birdwatchers dark grail. You might spend a week in a forest full of Gosses and never see one, just traces of their presence. A sudden hush, followed by the calls of terrified woodland birds, and a sense of something moving just beyond vision. Perhaps you'll find a half-eaten pigeon sprawled in a burst of white feathers on the forest floor. Or you might be lucky: waling in a foggy ride at dawn you'll turn your head and catch a split-second glimpse of a bird hurtling past and away, huge taloned feel held loosely clenched, eyes set on a distant target. A split second that stamps the image indelibly on your brain and leaves you hungry for more. Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don't get to say when or how. But you have a slightly better chance on still, clear mornings in early spring, because that's when goshawks eschew their world under the trees to court each other in the open sky. That was what I was hoping to see."


"The stare of a goshawk" - photo
Wikipedia article
Picture of American Goshawk
Collins Bird Guide ISBN-10 0002197286
RSPB handbook of British Birds ISBN-9781408127353 (3rd Edition) Pub. Helm
Macdonald, Helen : H is for hawk ISBN- 9780099575450 Pub. Vintage
Where to watch birds in East Anglia ISBN-0747004005 Pub. Helm

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