northern goshawk chicks in a nest

Goshawk nest with chicks. Photo credit: Grant Eldridge.

Responsible habitat management is a defining characteristic of private forest stewardship in B.C. To help small-forest owners be the best forest stewards they can be, we’ve put together a 2-part series titled “Managing Wildlife Habitat: Everything You Need to Know About Northern Goshawks”.

In the first post we introduced some defining characteristics of the species and briefly explained why it’s important to pay close attention to coastal Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis laingi).

This second post includes information to help you identify nests on your property, as well as better understand the timing and chronology of Northern Goshawk breeding.

Where do Northern Goshawks make their nests?

Norhtern Goshawk nest with chicks

Goshawk nest near Upper Quinsam River. Photo credit: Rick Merriman.

In general, the Northern Goshawk laingi subspecies select nesting habitat based on stand structure rather than stand age and species composition. Common characteristics of nest stands include:

  • Mature forests (45+ years)
  • Closed canopies
  • Good flyways and understory spacing
  • Relatively large diameter trees

Goshawks select nest trees with structural attributes strong enough to support their relatively large stick nests. Douglas-fir (Fd), western hemlock (Hw) and red alder (Dr) are the most common tree species used for Northern Goshawk nests, but you can also find nests in balsam (Ba) and bigleaf maples (Mb).

Goshawks build large stick nests in the lower levels of the live canopy (at about 2/3rd stand height). Often, a fork or crook in the tree is used as a base, but a sturdy branch whorl can also be used to support a large nest.

It’s common for Northern Goshawks to reuse old nests. Alternate nests (from previous years) can usually be found 100–200 metres away, within a range of 50m-800m.

Northern Goshawk breeding chronology

(If it helps to imagine Morgan Freeman’s voice narrating this section, we understand.)

Courting and breeding (late February to April)—males perform aerial displays to attract females, pairs mate and nests are built.

Incubation (May)—the female incubates the eggs in the nest while the male of the pair provides her with food.

Nestling (late May to late June)—the chicks hatch and remain in the nest where they’re fed by the adult birds. The male forages far from the nest, while the female remains close by.

Fledgling phase (late June to July)—this is when the chicks learn to fly and hunt, but they stay close to the nest and are still mostly fed by the adults.

Dispersal (August to early September)—by now the fledglings’ feathers have hardened and the juvenile and adult birds disperse from the nest area.

What do Northern Goshawks eat?  

Norther Goshawk plucking post

Example of a plucking post with prey remains.

Goshawks are opportunistic and eat a variety of prey. Squirrels, rabbits, hares, crows, grouse, jays, thrushes, woodpeckers and other medium-sized birds and mammals are among the main items in the Northern Goshawk’s diet.

A robust prey population is important for the species. Snags, course woody debris and diverse ecosystems are known to support an abundance of prey species.

Generally, hunting is carried out under the forest canopy—where the Northern Goshawk can move unnoticed through dense cover and overcome its prey in mid-air with a burst of speed—but Northern Goshawks can also hunt in open areas.

Once captured, the Northern Goshawk plucks its prey on a convenient flat surface (plucking post) near the nest, often an old stump or large snag.

How to recognize a Northern Goshawk nest?

You can easily see plenty of evidence below an active nest, but you might also find signs of nesting throughout an occupied territory.

signs of a Northern Goshawk nest above

Image of feathers, whitewash and pellets suggesting a goshawk nest above.

Obvious signs of an active nest include:

  • Molted adult Northern Goshawk feathers
  • Whitewash and pellets
  • Bones and feathers of prey

Ground searches around a Northern Goshawk nest late in the breeding season (July-August) will often indicate if and when the nest has been active.

A large robust nest with abundant whitewash and a littering of bones, feathers and pellets below has likely supported juvenile goshawks, whereas a nest with only older bones and feathers can indicate a successful nest a year or two earlier with whitewash and pellets washed away by heavy precipitation.

Minor amounts of prey remains and whitewash could indicate an unsuccessful nest, while a dilapidated nest that’s falling apart suggests the nest is more than 1 or 2 years old.

Beware: Northern Goshawks are fiercely protective

The Northern Goshawk is well known for fiercely defending its nest. Northern Goshawks occasionally attack people and other animals that approach their nests too closely. When agitated or disturbed during nesting season an adult Northern Goshawk will dive bomb and alarm call “ke-ke-ke-ke”.

Another big thanks to Molly Hudson, biologist with TimberWest, for her expertise in helping us put this information together.

We’ve included a few more images of Northern Goshawk nests in different tree species below for your reference.

Northern Goshawk nest  rsz_20140610_-_uphar3_3

Northern Goshawk nest