The northern goshawk is an uncommon winter visitor and summer resident in northern Wisconsin. However, every ten years or so when their favored prey, ruffed grouse and snowshoe hare, populations sharply decline, especially in Canada, there often is an influx of goshawks into the Lake States. And, such may be the case this winter. Sue Kartman on Sailor Creek Flowage near Fifield and Ryan Brady near Washburn have, along with some others, been privileged to see and photograph this large, bold, and crafty bird of prey around their homes in northern Wisconsin.
The northern goshawk is the largest member of 50 species in the genus Accipiter that includes the sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawk, also bird-eating forest hawks that hang around our feeders sometimes.
The goshawk is a forest bird that leads a mainly solitary life. It prefers living in hundreds of acres of mostly mature forests containing large clearings where it nests, hunts, and feeds on a wide variety of prey, from ruffed grouse to grasshoppers. Its extremely acute vision allows it to quickly find and capture prey. With its short, rounded wings and long, narrow tail, the goshawk twists and darts at incredible speeds of up to 39 mph through the forest dodging tree branches in pursuit of prey. Highly aggressive, it quickly kills its prey with the vicelike grip of its powerful talons.
The northern goshawk is found in North America, from Alaska and Canada south through most of the U.S. and parts of Mexico. It is also found in parts of Asia, Africa and throughout most of Europe. It is not globally threatened, but it is declining in many parts of its range due to habitat destruction, deforestation, climate change, pesticides, heavy metals and decreased prey availability. Goshawk nests are sometimes robbed to provide for the sport of falconry despite it being protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
Like most birds of prey, the northern goshawk is monogamous and mates for life. Both sexes perform flight displays, which includes soaring over stick nests they build lined with twigs and leaves. They often reuse and repair nests year after year and sometimes build several alterative nests within their territory that they also maintain. They lay an average of three to four eggs with the female doing most of the incubating, during which time the male does the hunting bringing her food on the nest. Both sexes vigorously defend the nest from all intruders including humans. I know from experience that if one wants to band the nestlings, great care must be taken by banders to protect themselves from serious injury. Banding studies show the maximum life span of a goshawk in the wild is 17 years, 7 months.
Goshawks have been uncommonly confirmed nesting in the northernmost Wisconsin counties. The reintroduced fisher has become a major predator of goshawk nests in Wisconsin where these two species co-exist.
Hopefully forest and goshawk management guidelines along with protective laws will allow goshawks to prosper in Wisconsin in the future, so the thrill of seeing one in the state will be possible for many years to come.
The private Nature Education Center in Fifield operated by Tom and Mary Lou Nicholls is open seasonally by appointment only. Nicholls can be reached at email@example.com.