Northern goshawk’s pursuit of life, prey marked by ferocity
Without warning, the hawk flashed across the dirt road, a gray squirrel dangling from its deadly talons. The dramatic flight happened at eye level and not more than 25 feet in front of us. But it happened so fast, and took us by such surprise, that we couldn't immediately identify the hawk. Luckily, it landed with its prey on the leafy litter of the forest floor just a short distance away.
We had a clear view through the understory to see the blue-gray hawk standing astride its victim. The bird had a wide white eyebrow, separating a black cap and black eye stripe. The overall impression, though, was of a steel-gray bird that looked powerful, even regal.
We could see no movement of bird or squirrel for several moments. The raptor's deadly talons were piercing the squirrel, making sure that the mammal was dead.
Northern goshawks (Accipiter gentilis) are raptors that favor the forest interior. They are the largest North American accipiters, a group of birds that includes the sharp-shinned hawk and Cooper's hawk. The goshawk is nearly 2 feet long with a wingspan in excess of 40 inches. It is bulky, too, weighing more than 2 pounds, double the weight of a Cooper's hawk and six times as heavy as the diminutive sharpie. The northern goshawk's opalescent breast and belly also set it apart from other accipiters.
Although females are significantly bigger than males-a common phenomenon among hawks-adult goshawks look identical. Juveniles are brown and white, and consequently are easier to confuse with other species in the field.
As the name suggests, northern goshawks make their homes in northern climes. They are year-round residents in much of Canada down through the U.S. Rockies and Sierra Nevadas. In the eastern United States, these hawks can be found throughout New England and the Great Lake states.
In the winter, they move farther south in the United States, especially if food is in short supply during harsh winters.
In the Chesapeake watershed, goshawks are year-round residents of New York and Pennsylvania forests. Birders were shocked on June 21, 2011, when the Maryland Department of Natural Resources reported the death of a northern goshawk, which was the only recorded nesting goshawk in Maryland. The bird had been shot illegally. In spite of the tragic incident, breeding bird data suggest that northern goshawks may be expanding their range slightly.
Goshawks are listed as a species of "least concern" among ornithologists because of their relatively strong numbers and geographically dispersed habitat. Widespread timbering in many Eastern states ended decades ago, and the returning forests are providing good habitat for these wide-ranging birds.
Goshawks are forest hunters. Primarily, they feed on other birds, everything from ruffed grouse to blue jays and songbirds. As we had just witnessed, they will also dine on small mammals, including squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits and the like.
Although they are relatively big birds, they are incredibly agile as they race through forest limbs and leaves. They use their slightly rounded wings and long tails to maneuver through the crowded airways.
Perched silently on a limb, the northern goshawk keeps a sharp eye out for prey. It usually attacks in a blinding burst of speed and power. Sometimes, it gives lengthy chase to racing rabbits or other ground animals, crashing through branches in its focused, deadly pursuit of a meal. The victim is grabbed in the goshawk's long, needle-sharp talons. The bird continues to fly, using its relatively long legs to hold its victim far away from its flapping wings. The goshawk kills by repeatedly piercing its prey with its talons.
Goshawks nest in sturdy branch-and-twig homes placed in the crook of a tree. As is standard for hawks, the female does all of the incubating while the male provides food for both members of the pair. Monogamous (another common trait among raptors), the birds raise a single brood annually. These hawks are especially well-known for their fierce defense of their nests. They will attack loggers- knocking off hard-hats - or dive-bomb any other intruder who ventures too close to an occupied nest.
The goshawk, for a time, was stationary, focusing on the meal it stood over. Here was that rare moment in which life's drama stopped for a moment. As a practical matter, the pause gave me time to identify the goshawk. In a larger sense, though, it gave me a moment to see life's drama unfold with all its speed, power and randomness.
The goshawk soon moved on, and life's headlong rush into the future continued.
For a second, I held my breath. The drama suffused me, and I savored it before the dizzying cascade of life swept me away once again.
- Category: Wildlife + Habitat
Comments are now closed for this article. Comments are accepted for 60 after publication.