Northern Goshawks are one of the most aggressive and fiercest birds of prey.
Anyone who has seen a goshawk up close will tell you, this is a bird that projects power.
It’s piercing stare, strong beak, powerful talons and strong presence underscore that this is a formidable predator.
These birds are agile, swift hunters with unnerving red eyes, legendary for their beauty, amazing flight skills and ferocity as powerful birds of prey of northern and mountain woods.
Adept Woodland Hunters
Goshawks are powerful, tenacious hunters capable of killing a variety of prey, including tree squirrels, hares, grouse, corvids, woodpeckers and large passerines. (Like American Robins).
The goshawks’ scientific tag is Accipiter gentilis, but gentilis does not mean gentle.
An aggressive North American hunting hawk, goshawks crash through brush when capturing prey or readily strike intruders approaching their nests.
Scarier than Other Hawks
Falconer and author Helen Macdonald in her bestselling memoir, H Is for Hawk, about a goshawk that helped her cope with her father’s death, says the goshawk is “bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier” than other hawks.
The New York Times science writer, James Gorman, calls goshawks “jet fighters with flapping wings” in an article which includes gripping video produced by physicist Suzanne Amador Kane from a camera mounted on a goshawk chasing a pheasant and other prey.
Gorman notes that goshawks process visual information four times faster than humans do, and they engage in at least two modes of prey pursuit: classical pursuit flying right after the prey or angling its flight toward the prey, so the two paths intersect.
In other words, Goshawks are utterly fearless.
Symbols of Strength
This behavior might explain why these birds are revered as symbols of strength.
And why a goshawk adorned the helmet of Attila the Hun.
Or why the U.S. Navy names its Naval trainer aircraft the T-45 Goshawk.
The courage and extreme aggression of this species when hunting grouse, ducks, rabbits, and hares gained its reputation as the “cook’s hawk” among falconers.
The goshawk species is not listed as Endangered in the U.S. but there is concern that timber harvest and human encroachment are reducing some populations.
Built for High Speed
Goshawks are not designed for soaring, but for maneuvering at high speed through dense woods.
Goshawks hunt inside the forest or along its edge. They take their prey by putting on short bursts of amazingly fast flight, often twisting among branches and crashing through thickets in the intensity of pursuit.
So, what happens if you run into a goshawk hiking in the woods?
Goshawks are hard to find because of their forest habitat. They prefer deep woods and seldom fly above the canopy.
Your best chance of finding a goshawk is by accidentally stumbling upon one of their nests.
Keep in mind that goshawks fiercely defend their nests.
The female goshawk’s defense of its nest site is described as “relentless,” and she will attack human intruders if they get too close.
Goshawks will make a keek-keek call and repeatedly make dramatic dives, possibly even hitting the person with their feet or scraping them with open talons.
It’s wise to take a territorial female goshawk seriously and keep your distance from the nest site.
Goshawks are Not Backyard Birds
Goshawks are not found in your backyard, and they are generally uninterested in feeders because they feed mostly on rabbits, squirrels, and grouse.
So your backyard chickadees, goldfinch, and juncos have little to fear.
The goshawks nest in a variety of habitat types from willow stands along Arctic rivers to massive old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest.
This species breed from Alaska to Newfoundland and south.
This partial migrant winters throughout its breeding range and occasionally the Great Plains and southeastern states.
Irruptive movements of northern birds to the south occurs at approximately 10-year intervals.
Size and Shape
Northern Goshawks are large hawks and the largest and bulkiest of the three North American accipiters.
The goshawk has a wingspan of 2 feet 10 inches – 3 feet 8 inches.
They have broad, rounded wings and long tails and relatively long secondary flight feathers give the trailing edge of the wing a curved or bulging look. The wingtips can look pointed in flight.
Adult goshawks are dark slate gray above with pale gray barred underparts and they have a dark head with a wide white stripe over the eye with dark ruby red eyes.
Immature goshawks are brown and streaky, with narrow dark bands in the tail. They have an indistinct pale eyebrow stripe and yellow eyes. Females are larger than males.
Goshawks are stealthy predators that watch for prey on high perches and then attack with quick, agile flight, even through dense trees or cluttered understory.
They fly with a few relatively slow wingbeats interspersed with short glides.
Where to see Goshawks
A great place to see Northern Goshawks is Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, PA.
Hawk Mountain, referred to as “Nature’s Greatest Air Show” is a fantastic place to learn about raptors and see them in person.
Check their website to see their latest Raptor Count.
Hawk Mountain straddles the Kittatinny Ridge or Blue Mountain, a 300-mile-long, prominent ridge that extends from 60 miles north of New York City to 20 miles west of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
The Kittatinny is the southeasternmost “corduroy hill” in the Appalachian Ridge-and-Valley Province of eastern Pennsylvania.
Birds drifting south from Canada, New England, and New York, slope soar the length of the ridge, saving energy on their journey south.
Northern Goshawk Hawk Mountain Stats
67-year annual average: 71
Record year: 347 (1972)
Best chance to see: Mid- to late November.
Long-term trends: Difficult to discern in this irruptive migrant. Counts in the 1980s and 1990s not as high as during early 1970s.
Hawk Mountain is open year-round, but if you want to see goshawks, plan your trip for mid-November for best chances to see these beautiful birds of prey.
The beautiful goshawk featured in this story is named Manilla.
Manilla is a female Northern Goshawk that is a permanent resident and bird ambassador at Christine’s Critters, a Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education non-profit in Weston, Connecticut run by Christine Peyreigne.
Manilla came to Christine’s Critters as a juvenile from Middlebury, Connecticut.
Christine rescues, rehabilitates and releases over birds of prey each year.
Read more about Christine’s birds ambassadors in our If Rehabbed Birds of Prey Could Talk feature.