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Goshawk

Accipiter gentilis

Goshawk photo over reserve on Sat 10thAdult Goshawk. Photo Gary Funnell

Goshawk are well-known as feisty and difficult falconers’ birds and their scientific name gentilis derives from the fact that traditionally only members of the gentry or nobility were allowed to carry one. Goshawks are the largest of the accipiter/hawk group of birds of prey and are found across much of the Northern Hemisphere. In much of their range they are one of the top predators, but share their habitat with other, smaller, accipiters such as Sparrowhawk in the UK and Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks in North America.

Goshawks are formidable hunters and often seem fearless, with many accounts of them tackling much larger prey than themselves. They are certainly adaptable, but will also actively target perceived threats and competition such as Buzzard, falcons and owls; in fact in Europe Goshawk is the second most frequent cause of predation on owls after Eagle Owl.

Identification of Goshawk can be difficult, and it is a notorious ‘beginner’s bird’, especially with fleeting views or where size is not apparent. Adults should be reasonably obvious, with grey/brown backs, dark caps and cheeks and pale eyestripes with very fine barring on the pale undersides. Young birds are brown above and have dark ‘drop’ marks on the chest, as opposed to young Sparrowhawks which are coarsely barred below, but young female Sparrowhawks in particular are often identified as Goshawk. A large female Sparrowhawk can approach the size, if not the bulk, of a male Goshawk, but female Goshawks are Buzzard-sized.

VITAL STATISTICS

Size: Average 55cm, wingspan 110cm. Females (1.5kg) larger than males (850g).

Status: Reintroduced resident breeder.

Population size: 400 pairs.

Conservation status: GREEN (Least concern).

Lifespan: Average age in the wild is 7 years. Adults have an 83% year-to-year survival. First year survival is not known, but birds have a 40% chance of reaching their second year. The oldest known wild bird was almost 19 years old (ringing recovery).

Nesting: Goshawks build large stick nests high up in a tree, usually a conifer. They are highly secretive whilst nesting, but when displaying on fine days in early spring, high above the trees, they can give their presence away and this is often the best time to see this elusive species.

Number of eggs: 3-4

Incubation: 35-38 days

Fledging time: 35-42 days

Northern Goshawk Norbert KenntnerAdult Goshawk. Photo Norbert Kenntner via Wikimedia Commons.

Habitat and Distribution: Goshawk share the same short, blunt wings as their smaller cousin, Sparrowhawk, which gives a clue to their woodland habitat. Enabling them to move rapidly and agilely through dense vegetation, Goshawk are supremely adapted to life in wooded areas. The majority of birds are found in woodland, and they are prone to disturbance, so tend to be found in remoter areas, they are extremely rare in urban areas and are highly unlikely to be found taking birds in gardens. They are most likely to be encountered in Wales and southern and eastern Scotland, but there are also well-known populations around Dartmoor, New Forest, Thetford Forest, Pennines and Northumberland. It is believed that the population is increasing, but numbers are still too low for it to be monitored by standard bird surveys.

Movements: Throughout their huge world range Goshawks can be highly migratory, but British Goshawks are invariably sedentary. Occasionally young birds and migrants wander to UK from northern Europe where they may be more migratory in response to varying food availability. It is possible that some of the recent population comes from these continental birds which have stayed.    

Feeding: In the UK most prey taken are birds, with Wood Pigeons and members of the crow family favourites. In some areas, such as North America, mammals may also feature highly and a study in Thetford Forest showed that over 50% of the food fed to chicks in the nest was Grey Squirrel. Food availability is unlikely to be a factor in suppressing numbers of Goshawk which are presently well below expected carrying capacity in UK. They are adaptable and catholic hunters, making use of any opportunities. They invariably hunt by sitting and watching, combined with short, stealthy flights between perches. Once prey is spotted it can be caught in a number of different ways, but Goshawk are even known to hunt on foot on the ground in very dense habitats. Most prey are likely to be taken by surprise, although long, agile chases occasionally occur, especially if the hawk is hungry.

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