Vail Daily column: Young goshawks leave the nest
Vail, CO Colorado
“From up here you know it must be a long way down, since anything that falls from your nest takes a while to hit the forest floor. This tall tree has been home since you and your sister hatched about 40 days ago … and soon you’ll both need to take off from here and begin to forage on your own. Your father, the ‘breadwinner’ of the family, can no longer keep up with your adolescent appetites, and the nest is starting to feel a bit cramped as you both grow bigger. Since you were very young you’ve been practicing, working out the wing muscles, getting stronger each day. From fluffy white downy feathers as a newly hatched nestling, you’ve molted to grow larger, rigid flight feathers. Now it’s summertime, and it’s your initiation into the world of sprinting and dodging through old growth forest to hunt squirrels, rabbits and birds.”
Northern Goshawks (Accipiter gentilis) are not often seen, but they are a fairly common raptor in our old growth conifer and deciduous forests. They prefer to hide among the canopy and fly tight lines through the trees, rather than hunt in open areas. Even their prey often doesn’t even see them coming, as stalking and surprise attacks are their trademark. Being a medium-sized hawk with a quick metabolism, goshawks need to feed daily, so after leaving the nest, juveniles need to spend time learning to survive from their parents. Eyes are pale yellow as juveniles, but develop to red as they reach adulthood at about two years, and females are significantly larger than males. They are mottled brown when young, but become blue-grey above with a distinct white eyebrow stripe and mottled grey or white below with dark barring on the tail. The unusual name comes from the Anglo-Saxon “gos-hafoc” or goose-hawk, recognizing the hawk’s prowess against larger quarry such as geese. They were, and still are sometimes used in falconry, where this ability comes in handy.
Goshawks are native to temperate portions of the northern hemisphere (holarctic), and don’t generally migrate from their home territories, but may move to lower elevations during winter in response to prey availability. In the wild they often live up to 20 years. To spot them in the forest, you might look for a downed log or stump they use repeatedly to perch and pluck out the hair or feathers of prey. During spring mating, you might hear their gull-like calls, or see a fleeting glimpse of the male’s undulating flight display. They often reuse nest locations from year to year, which are often in the tallest trees of an old growth forest.
The life of a goshawk isn’t bad, especially if you like your meat served very rare, but there are threats to overcome. Cutting of old growth forests, fire suppression, and expansion of housing into forested areas can decrease the amount of habitat for the birds. Although they are not endangered, their numbers have declined in North America, although there has been a rebound since they were protected by their 1972 inclusion in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In the early 20th century they were considered a threat to game species, and it was not uncommon to see a bounty offered for birds killed.
Back in the nest: ” … As you take your first steps outside the nest edge, instinct takes over, and your heavy body gets lifted up by vigorous flapping of your new wings. Short flights are all for now, and you’ll fly-hop from branch to branch until your skills improve. You will be learning from your parents over the next few weeks how to evade predators, and how to catch supper, then it will be time to find your own hunting grounds.”
Emerald Gustowt is a volunteer for Walking Mountains, with a background in avian rehabilitation. She enjoys looking out for goshawks and other critters while hiking forest trails.
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