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Northern goshawks are raptors of note

Of the northern goshawk, which was formerly called "eastern goshawk," Arthur Cleveland Bent wrote: "From the heavily forested regions of Canada, the main summer home of the goshawk, this bold brigand of the north woods, the largest, the handsomest, and the most dreaded of the Accipiter tribe, swoops down, in winter, upon our poultry yards and game covers with deadly effect. He is cordially hated, and justly so, by the farmer and sportsman; and for his many sins he often pays the extreme penalty."

The northern goshawk, a bird belonging to the much maligned group of birds referred to as raptors, or birds of prey, has always had the reputation of being a ruthless killer of domestic and wild fowl. Even to this day, a surprisingly large contingent of both hunters and farmers continue to speak ill will of these birds, falsely holding onto the notion that fewer raptors mean more game.

That northern goshawks do kill and eat an occasional game bird such as a ruffed grouse is acknowledged, but the belief that these birds kill game birds in such sufficient numbers as to decimate populations, is an absolute falsehood. The diet of northern goshawks also includes, and undoubtedly exceeds the sportsman's covet, a host of small mammals like red squirrels, voles and mice, rabbits and hares and many other species of birds such as pigeons and sparrows.

Northern goshawks, Minnesota's largest accipiter, occur throughout the Northland in mostly mixed deciduous-coniferous forests. A large bird with a body length of up to 21 inches, wingspan to 41 inches, and body weights of more than two pounds, the bird is more than capable of capturing both small and medium-sized prey alike.

This beautiful and secretive hawk of the forest is of particular interest to natural resource professionals and birders alike. Though not considered an endangered, threatened or a species of special concern, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has nonetheless developed management considerations that benefit this special raptor. Through DNR recommendations, goshawks will continue to remain as one of Minnesota's top avian predators inhabiting the state's northern forests.

Northern goshawks are unlike many raptors found here. To more closely monitor the raptors throughout its northern Minnesota range, biologists conduct nest surveys and radio telemetry studies to track the birds. These activities have led to the discovery that goshawks do not migrate in the fall like most hawks and falcons do. In fact, northern goshawks stay in Minnesota all winter long.

Breeding territories of northern goshawks encompass large areas. According to a study conducted in 2001, the average size in acres of a goshawks' breeding territory was estimated at between 12,000 and 20,000 acres for the 11 bird-pairs monitored. Interestingly, a breeding pair will construct several alternative nests -- up to eight -- near the active nest.

Aside from the overall size of northern goshawks, distinctive markings set them apart from other accipiters. As a note, accipiters, when compared to buteos such as red-tailed hawks and rough-legged hawks, typically have longer, narrower tails and shorter, broader wings than buteos possess.

Still, no other accipiter, of which the Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks are classified as well, has a more boldly patterned head. The adult goshawk displays a dark cap, a bold white "eyebrow" and a broad black eye-band. Adult plumage coloration is grayish overall, while immature goshawks are brown with brown-on-white streaked bellies.

As already mentioned, prey items making up the diet of northern goshawks include many species of birds and mammals, including reptiles and amphibians. Their hunting style is quick, aggressive and efficient. E.H. Forbush, 1927, wrote of the goshawk's attack: "...furious and deadly. In the death grapple, it clings ferociously to its victim, careless of its own safety until the unfortunate creature succumbs to its steely grip."

Hunting within the forest or along forested edges and openings, northern goshawks will usually perch from vantages within the canopy and ambush unsuspecting prey below. They subdue and kill prey quickly with their sharp talons. Goshawks will often surprise prey by flying above dense cover, spooking the quarry into flushing, and overtaking them. So determined is their pursuit at fleeing prey, goshawks have even been observed chasing barnyard fowl into buildings. Bounties were commonly paid in some states for species of hawks, including the goshawk, during the early 1900s.

Nesting for Minnesota's goshawks begins by April with egg laying, incubation and hatching all occurring by the end of May. Clutch sizes range from two-five chicks. Though the actual northern goshawk population is unknown in Minnesota, some 48 active breeding territories were known to exist in 2001-2002. Known for fiercely protecting their nesting territory from intruders, including humans, northern goshawks have been known to swoop and even strike those coming too close to an active nest.

Minnesota's northern goshawks appear to be finding plenty of suitable habitat for hunting, breeding and raising their offspring in. Couple this good news with that of increased public awareness and appreciation, as well as specific forestry and wildlife management practices that benefit goshawks, more sightings of these important raptors will surely be ours.

Indeed, Herbert Ravenel Sass, 1930, correctly recognized the attributes of goshawks and accipiters in general when he wrote: "We do not live by bread alone. Beauty and courage, swiftness and strength mean something to us; and we shall find these qualities in high degree in the hawks of the Accipiter clan. Especially is this true of the largest and strongest of them, the goshawk, one of the deadliest, handsomest, bravest birds of prey in the world."

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at