G is for Goshawk
I read a book about goshawks long before I saw one. A Northern Goshawk is the star of H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. It is the riveting true story of the author training her newly acquired goshawk, and how her relationship with this wild bird of prey enabled her to cope with severe depression and emotional crisis following her father's death. Reading the book I also learned about the exciting sport of falconry as well as the business of birds of prey. Once a sport of nobility – Emperor Shah Jahan, for example, counted seventy goshawks in his stable of raptors – falconry today is a largely unknown subject. The book offered a glimpse into this world: no wonder it was a bestseller. (It could have been called G is for Goshawk but then how many would understand the title and buy the book?)
Goshawks belong to the family Accipitridae, a group of about two hundred species of birds of prey, including hawks, kites, eagles, buzzards, some vultures, and of course goshawks. There are approximately thirty species of goshawks worldwide. These vary from small (30 cm.) to large (165 cm.) Females are larger than males.
Goshawks are well adapted for hunting, but their hunting style is different from the spectacular diving attacks employed by falcons. They are stealthier, sometimes flying beneath their prey, often manoeuvring through forests, sometimes on foot through heavy ground cover, to pounce when the prey makes a mistake. Attaining speeds of 30 miles per hour in a few seconds, they take birds in flight as well as smaller mammals such as rabbits. Their wings and legs are well adapted to weaving through closely spaced trees.
In Bangladesh we can see Crested and Northern Goshawks. The former, living here year-round, is seen in the forests of Sylhet and Chittagong. The latter is a winter visitor and seen in Dhaka and Chittagong. Both are rare.
I saw the Crested Goshawk from the watchtower at Satchori National Park. It soared high above the forest, using thermals to minimize its wing beats. Like many goshawks, it had yellow-orange eyes with a piercing gaze. While flying in circles, it searched for prey below, coming very close to the tower.
Another time the air supremacy of this apex predator came under attack as I watched. It had flown too close to the nest of a Racket-tailed Drongo. The irate drongo shot up, two long tail feathers trailing behind, and flew straight at the goshawk which immediately turned around and started flying away. The drongo chased it for at least a quarter mile before leaving the raptor in peace.
Some years ago, while visiting a falconry in the mountains of Slovakia, I saw a Northern Goshawk and a Siberian Goshawk. Against a backdrop of snow covered terrain, the flights of these birds were sublime displays. In Kenya, I saw a Pale-chanting Goshawk perched on top of an acacia tree, looking for prey down in the savanna. Unlike other goshawks, it had black eyes.
One day I would like to see the White Goshawk of Australia, a genetic mutation of the Grey Goshawk. Why? It is the only pure white raptor in the world.
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