The Goshawk is of rare occurrence in most parts of the United States, and the districts of North America to which it usually retires to breed are as yet unknown. Some individuals nestle within the Union, others in the British provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, but the greater part seem to proceed farther north. I saw none, however, in Labrador, but was informed that they are plentiful in the wooded parts of Newfoundland. On returning from the north, they make their appearance in the Middle States about the beginning of September, and after that season range to very great distances. I have found them rather abundant in the lower parts of Kentucky and Indiana, and in severe winters I have seen a few even in Louisiana. In the Great Pine Forest of Pennsylvania, and at the Falls of Niagara, I have observed them breeding. During autumn and winter, they are common in Maine, as well as in Nova Scotia, where I have seen six or seven specimens that were procured by a single person in the course of a season. At Pictou, Professor MACCULLOCH shewed me about a dozen well mounted specimens of both sexes, and of different ages, which he had procured in the neighbourhood. In that country, they prey on Hares, the Canada Grouse, the Rutted Grouse, and Wild Ducks. In Maine, they are so daring as to come to the very door of the farmer's house, and carry off chickens and ducks with such rapidity as generally to elude all attempts to shoot them. When residing in Kentucky I shot a great number of these birds, particularly one cold winter, near Henderson, when I killed a dozen or more on the ice in Canoe Creek, where I generally surprised them by approaching the deep banks of that stream with caution, and not unfrequently almost above them, when their escape was rendered rather difficult. They there caught Mallards with ease, and after killing them turned them belly upwards, and ate only the flesh of the breast, pulling the feathers with great neatness, and throwing them round the bird, as if it had been plucked by the hand of man.
The flight of the Goshawk is extremely rapid and protracted. He sweeps along the margins of the fields, through the woods, and by the edges of ponds and rivers, with such speed as to enable him to seize his prey by merely deviating a few yards from his course, assisting himself on such occasions by his long tail, which, like a rudder, he throws to the right or left, upwards or downwards, to check his progress, or enable him suddenly to alter his course. At times he passes like a meteor through the underwood, where he secures squirrels and hares with ease. Should a flock of Wild Pigeons pass him when on these predatory excursions, he immediately gives chase, soon overtakes them, and forcing his way into the very centre of the flock, scatters them in confusion, when you may see him emerging with a bird in his talons, and diving towards the depth of the forest to feed upon his victim. When travelling, he flies high, with a constant beat of the wings, seldom moving in large circles like other Hawks, and when he does this, it is only a few times, in a hurried manner, after which he continues his journey.
Along the Atlantic coast, this species follows the numerous flocks of ducks that are found there during autumn and winter, and greatly aids in the destruction of Mallards, Teals, Black Ducks, and other species, in company with the Peregrine Falcon. It is a restless bird, apparently more vigilant and industrious than many other Hawks, and seldom alights unless to devour its prey; nor can I recollect ever having seen one alighted for many minutes at a time without having a bird in its talons. When thus engaged with its prey, it stands nearly upright, and in general, when perched, it keeps itself more erect than most species of Hawk. It is extremely expert at catching Snipes on the wing, and so well do these birds know their insecurity, that, on his approach, they prefer squatting.
When the Passenger Pigeons are abundant in the western country, the Goshawk follows their close masses, and subsists upon them. A single Hawk suffices to spread the greatest terror among their ranks, and the moment he sweeps towards a flock, the whole immediately dive into the deepest woods, where, notwithstanding their great speed, the marauder Succeeds in clutching the fattest. While travelling along the Ohio, I observed several Hawks of this species in the train of millions of these Pigeons. Towards the evening of the same day, I saw one abandoning its course, to give chase to a large flock of Crow Blackbirds (Quiscalus versicolor), then crossing the river. The Hawk approached them with the swiftness of an arrow, when the Blackbirds rushed together so closely that the flock looked like a dusky ball passing through the air. On reaching the mass, he, with the greatest ease, seized first one, then another, and another, giving each a squeeze with his talons, and suffering it to drop upon the water. In this manner, he had procured four or five before the poor birds reached the woods, into which they instantly plunged, when he gave up the chase, swept over the water in graceful curves, and picked up the fruits of his industry, carrying each bird singly to the shore. Reader, is this instinct or reason?
The nest of the Goshawk is placed on the branches of a tree, near the trunk or main stem. It is of great size, and resembles that of our Crow, or some species of Owl, being constructed of withered twigs and coarse grass, with a lining of fibrous strips of plants resembling hemp. It is, however, much flatter than that of the Crow. In one I found, in the month of April, three eggs, ready to be hatched; they were of a dull bluish-white, sparingly spotted with light reddish-brown. In another, which I found placed on a pine tree, growing on the eastern rocky bank of the Niagara river, a few miles below the Great Cataract, the lining was formed of withered herbaceous plants, with a few feathers, and the eggs were four in number, of a white colour, tinged with greenish-blue, large, much rounded, and somewhat granulated. In another nest were four young birds, covered with buff coloured down, their legs and feet of a pale yellowish flesh colour, the bill light blue, and the eyes pale grey. They differed greatly in size, one being quite small compared with the rest. I am of opinion that few breed to the south of the State of Maine.
The variations of the plumage exhibited by the Goshawk are numerous. I have seen some with horizontal bars, of a large size, on the breast, and blotches of white on the back and shoulders, while others had the first of these parts covered with delicate transverse lines, the shaft of each feather being brown or black, and were of a plain cinereous tint above. The young, which at first have but few scattered dashes of brown beneath, are at times thickly mottled with that, and each feather of the back and wings is broadly edged with dull white.
My opinion respecting the identity of the American Goshawk and that of Europe, is still precisely the same as it was some years ago, when I wrote a paper on the subject, which was published in the Edinburgh Journal of Natural and Geographical Science. I regret differing on this point from such ornithologists as CHARLES BONAPARTE and M. TEMMINCK; but, after due consideration, I cannot help thinking these birds the same.
The figure of the adult was drawn at Henderson, in Kentucky, many years ago. That of the young bird was taken from a specimen shot in the Great Pine Forest in Pennsylvania.
ASH-COLOURED or BLACK-CAPPED HAWK, Falco atricapillus, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. vi. p. 80.
FALCO PALUMBARIUS, Bonap. Syn., p. 28.
AMERICAN GOSHAWK, Falco atricapillus, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 85.
ACCIPITER (ASTUR) PALUMBARIUS, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii. p. 39.
GOSHAWK, Falco palumbarius, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. ii. p. 241.
Adult male, dark bluish-grey above, the tail with four broad bands of blackish-brown, the upper part of the head greyish-black; a white band, with black lines, over the eyes; lower parts white, narrowly barred with grey, and longitudinally streaked with dark brown. Young, brown above, the feathers edged with reddish-white, the head and hind neck pale red, streaked with blackish-brown, the lower parts yellowish-white, with oblong longitudinal dark brown spots.
Length 24 inches; extent of wings 47.