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Goshawks can inspire terror from above

Most sightings of birds are a delight — or maybe not if it’s a starling in your cherry tree making off with the fruit — but it’s rare for a bird to inspire terror.

There is one species that has done so twice in my life, the northern goshawk.

The goshawk is closely related to two other local species, the Cooper’s hawk and sharp-shinned hawk. All are known for their taste for birds, making them less desirable as visitors to the backyards of those who feed birds. The goshawk, the largest of the three, includes more mammals in its diet than the others.

My first encounter with a goshawk was in Ponderosa pine country near Sisters, as a 12-year-old. A family friend invited me to come along on a short search with an unspecified goal. As this was a birding outing, I assumed we were searching for some kind of bird. About 10 minutes into the search, something told me to turn around quickly. I was greeted with the sight of two blazing red eyes on a gray body hurtling toward us from a range of less than 100 feet. I ducked just in time.

Discovered, it rose up and proceeded to scream at us. It took offense at our proximity to its nest about 50 feet up a Ponderosa. It complained until we departed along with the rest of the birding group that came along after we had located the nest. Goshawks are quite aggressive in defense of the nest. The family friend was pretty sure we would get an exciting reception, certainly a memorable one for a 12-year-old.

The second incident occurred many years later as I cruised timber for the Forest Service. Working alone in the silent forest, I was startled by an amazingly loud screeching noise just behind me. I turned just in time for a California ground squirrel to run almost between my legs. Immediately behind it was another set of blazing red eyes flying at ground level right on the tail of the squirrel. The goshawk upon seeing me came to an instant halt on the ground not 10 feet away, wings spread and reared back on its tail. While our face-to-face encounter seemed much longer, the goshawk vanished in seconds. I have always wondered whether the squirrel had intentionally sought me out as cover.

Goshawks live and breed in Jackson County, but their numbers are few. They prefer big timber, often along watercourses that serve as highways for them. They are more common east of the crest of the Cascades among older Ponderosa pine. The nest is almost always placed on a horizontal limb and next to the trunk, and they line their nest with bark flakes. They even breed among aspen in places such as Steen’s Mountain in the southeast corner of the state. Although not threatened, their numbers have declined with the loss of old-growth stands with an open understory.

May all your bird encounters be the delightful kind, unless you wish otherwise. Some people seem to like a little terror, usually in the form of roller coasters, whitewater rafting and the like. Terror certainly makes events memorable.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.