This story was originally published in June 2020.
June is the perfect month to meet a lot of birds in the woods. They’re singing. They’re telling you who they are and where they are. However, there is one bird you don’t want to meet this time of year: a northern goshawk.
Northern goshawks are large hawks in the accipiter family. This family also includes sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks. All have relatively short wings, which enables quick acceleration. They have long tails, which they use as rudders to give them incredible maneuverability. Accipiters can flash through the forest without crashing into branches. They are built to be sneaky, typically taking birds and mammals by surprise. Even without the surprise factor, accipiters can outfly most birds.
Northern goshawks are the largest of the accipiters. The name comes from an Old English word for “goose hawk.” Indeed, they are powerful enough to take down a goose, as well as the chubbiest snowshoe hare. Mostly, they eat other birds, preferably sizable ones. Crows and jays are on the menu. They love grouse. Thrushes and woodpeckers are dietary staples.
Goshawks aren’t rare, but they sure are secretive. They reside in large tracts of forest and seldom venture into suburbia. The breeding range for this species extends across the northern part of the continent, dipping down the Rockies all the way to Arizona, and down the Appalachians as far as West Virginia. During a lean winter, some wander farther south. Most stay put year round.
Although goshawks live in areas of high conifer density, eastern birds tend to nest in the largest maples, beeches, oaks and aspens. Nests are generally low in the tree, on a sturdy branch next to the trunk. Perhaps it is this low vantage point that encourages them to attack anything that approaches.
And attack, they will. No bird in North America is more aggressive in defending its nest than a northern goshawk. You don’t have to look for goshawks. They find you. If you get anywhere near the nest, they will ask you to leave in a loud, clear voice, and it won’t be polite. I recommend that you do as they suggest, because a failure to obey is likely to provoke a physical attack, as they come screaming in, needle-sharp talons aimed at your scalp.
This panic-attack attack happens only during nesting season. The rest of the year, goshawks don’t care about you. I’ve benefited from this timing twice. A few weeks ago, I was walking along a logging road near Moosehead Lake, when I heard the ki-ki-ki-ki scream of a goshawk ahead. Moments later, I could see the nest through the budding leaves, and I caught glimpses of the hawk circling around the back of the woodlot. It appeared that the bird did not yet have a mate, so it paid no attention to me. Thank goodness. I was prepared to run.
A few years ago, I was guiding a walk along Eagle Hill Bog on Campobello. We were barely out of the parking lot when I could hear raucous cries from the back of the bog. We got there in time to watch a most vigorous courtship. Despite an amused crowd of people below, the pair paid attention only to each other. But a few days later, the boardwalk was closed, as the goshawks had begun attacking people.
In fact, northern goshawk encounters are so memorable, I can clearly remember most of mine. I remember one chasing pigeons while I was pub-hopping in Portland on a cold January day. I remember guiding a group in Baxter State Park a few years ago, where one member of my party really wanted to see one. Unfortunately, he was in the outhouse when it flew by. I can’t laugh. A few years ago, my birdathon team was at Quoddy Head State Park. We needed a goshawk to improve our score. I was in the outhouse when I heard my teammates cheering.
I vividly remember my first goshawk. I was a senior at Colby College, and learned from a friend that there was an active nest behind the chapel. I took my girlfriend on a hike to see it, telling her I had a surprise in store for her. Both goshawk parents strafed us angrily. My girlfriend was impressed that I had planned such an exhilarating and unique outdoor “date,” and eventually she married me — 42 years ago.
By the way, I returned to my Moosehead goshawk two weeks later. I enjoyed a pleasant walk in, and a terrified sprint out.