Encountering the Northern Goshawk

Jul 5th, 2018 | By | Category: Articles
photo of Northern Goshawk

Photo: Losto Doneddu.

The Northern Goshawk is a large accipiter native to the northern latitudes of North America and Eurasia. It is a forest bird, renowned for its ability to weave through dense hardwoods in pursuit of the mammals and birds it feeds on. So agile is this hawk, that it can flip upside down to seize birds from below.

The female Northern Goshawk weighs about three pounds, roughly the size of a Red-Tailed Hawk. Unlike the Red-Tailed Hawk, the conservation status of this raptor is highly debated, because it is considered an exceedingly shy bird. When I spotted my first Northern Goshawk in 2011 others questioned my identification, saying this was a rare bird, but since then I have spotted them with increasing frequency. I believe that in the Adirondacks, at least, their numbers are increasing.

While the North American and Eurasian goshawks differ slightly in coloring, the main difference between the two is that the North American is much more aggressive. It is speculated that the longer history of persecution in Eurasia has made the bird more inclined to flee humans rather than attack. The Eurasian goshawk is still a fierce predator, killing and consuming a wide range of mammals including young deer. Where I live, the Snowshoe Hare makes up a significant portion of its diet.

On the day of my most momentous encounter, I was traipsing along an abandoned dirt road through mixed conifer-hardwood forest. It was about noon. A large bird swooped close to my head and settled in the upper branches of a nearby tree. Usually I am thrilled when I see a Goshawk. I have always been enchanted by these birds, with their large bodies swooping easily among the trees. Only the day before, on a different trail, a Goshawk had buzzed me and then landed in a beech tree to inspect me, and I had been elated.

Northern Goshawk in Kaibab National Forest. Photo: US Forest Service Southwest Region.

But as this particular Goshawk flew by, my first thought was, “I hope that was a Broad-Winged Hawk.” The smaller Broad-Winged Hawk also nests in deciduous forests, and it is not nearly as aggressive. No such luck: it was definitely a Goshawk.

Assuming that I was already past the nest area, I continued walking, but the hawk continued buzzing me, closer and closer. At one point, seeing those talons headed straight for me, I feared I was going to be seriously disfigured. Eventually I turned around, because the territorial behavior was only getting more intense. The bird continued to harass me, until eventually I broke out in a run. As soon as I started running, she relaxed, giving one more comparatively weak feint before halting pursuit. Running is not my preferred way of handling a close wildlife encounter, and there was no way I could outrun a Goshawk, nor would the brush have provided any protection against this agile bird. However, it turned out to be the only way of managing this contest; the hawk evidently was looking for a clear sign that she was making an impression.

Goshawk attacks are supposedly more common when hiking solo, but I soon learned that this particular Goshawk had been terrorizing the vicinity for a day or two, threatening even small groups taking that shortcut through the woods. Needless to say, I was shaken. I’m no stranger to aggressive posturing from wildlife, including birds, but this mama wasn’t fooling around. I’m sticking to very well-trod paths until mid-July when those Goshawk babies have fledged!

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