Eyes on the Prey

What’s good for the northern goshawk is good for the forest, too.

A key to the northern goshawk’s survival is a forest with an abundance of prey, like this desert cottontail.


Imagine you’re a hungry bird of prey looking to scare up dinner. You’re flying fast and low through the forest and have just spotted a rabbit under a tree. You rev up the engines and swoop in for the ambush. You’re in luck! You’ve got food to take back to your hungry chicks. 

As one of the forest’s top predators, the northern goshawk is built for hunting. Its four-foot wingspan and rudder-like tail feathers help it glide along trees and forest edges, while producing rapid bursts of speed to attack its prey. 

Its hunting skills are impressive, but a key to its survival is a forest with an abundance of prey, creatures like mice, rabbits, birds and squirrels. 

Diversity of prey species indicates a healthy forest. And what’s good for the northern goshawk is good for the forest. 

That’s the theory behind mid-elevation forest management in Arizona and the Southwest. It’s also incorporated into the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which calls for thinning 300,000 acres over the next decade. 

“By managing for the northern goshawk, you manage for a suite of prey species, which results in a mosaic of forest conditions,” says Sue Sitko, the Conservancy’s northern Arizona conservation manager. “This approach is intended to help a substantial part of the whole forest ecosystem to flourish.” 

The Four Forest initiative, the largest forest restoration effort in the country, calls for multi-staged thinning and controlled burning to create a patchwork of mixed sizes and densities of trees and open areas. The goal is to restore forest health and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire across four Arizona national forests. The Conservancy is a partner in this initiative, along with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies and organizations.

A Forest Fit for a Goshawk

Research shows that northern goshawks prefer large trees for nesting. Most of Arizona’s pine forests are dense with younger-aged trees, due to years of logging and fire suppression. Goshawk populations have declined in these areas, though the raptors are not listed as “threatened” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Along the northern rim of the Grand Canyon, where a greater number of older age trees remain, goshawk populations appear to be stable.  

Forest managers in Arizona can’t turn back the clock and immediately create old-age forests. But they can design restoration treatments that enhance conditions for goshawk prey while meeting other objectives, such as reducing fire risk to communities. That means a variety of habitat types will persist in the forest, including openings, shrubby areas and the edges that divide them. 

Some species depend on denser conditions, while others prefer more open meadows. Connectivity of denser forested areas, says Sitko, are part of the design of the Four Forest restoration treatments. 

Restoration efforts can also be stated in terms goshawks can relate to. For example:

  • Goshawks prefer dense forested areas for nesting
  • They like more open, moderately dense areas for “family time,” where the parents can take their young hunting
  • The birds have an easier time hunting while having the safety of denser cover nearby 

Finally, there are the foraging areas, the largest expanse of land, geared toward a mosaic of old and young groups of trees and openings. These are the places designed to help ensure an abundance of prey species.

Restoring Forests for People and Goshawks

The important thing, says Sitko, is that “we can meet multiple objectives for both wildlife and people. The treatments work to protect communities — witness the Wallow Fire and how most communities were protected from a consuming fire after being treated. And they help maintain canopy cover, or live trees, due to the reduction in the amount of fuel.” 

Next time you’re in the forest, look at it from a goshawk perspective: Would this be a good place to hunt? Good for young to “get their wings?” Or a good place to build a nest? 

Maybe you’ll see one of the world’s top forest predators streaking through the air with its cross-hairs trained on a squirrel. Just remember what it took for that squirrel to be there — the seeds they subsist on and the forest structure that allows these seeds to grow. 

In other words, a healthy forest.


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