A charming article about northern goshawks by James Gorman of the New York Times has dredged up a memory of my run-in with one of these fierce creatures.
Goshawks, which range across North America and Eurasia, are among evolution's highest-performance products. They have relatively short, broad wings—compared to the wings of, say, red-tailed hawks—designed not for soaring but for maneuvering at high speed through dense woods.
Gorman calls goshawks "jet fighters with flapping wings." His article includes gripping video—produced by physicist Suzanne Amador Kane—from a camera mounted on a goshawk chasing a pheasant and other prey. Gorman notes that goshawks process visual information four times faster than humans do, and they engage in at least two modes of prey pursuit.
"One is a classical pursuit," Gorman writes, "or flying right after the prey. Another, which betrays its military engineering origins in its name, is constant absolute target direction, or C.A.T.D. In plain language, Dr. Kane said, that means the missile or hawk angles its flight toward the prey so the two paths will intersect."
Goshawks' scientific tag is Accipiter gentilis, but gentilis does not mean gentle. In her bestselling memoir H Is for Hawk, about a goshawk that helped her cope with her father's death, falconer Helen Macdonald calls the birds "bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier" than other hawks.
And that brings me to my story.
I used to live in Garrison, New York, right next to Hudson Highlands State Park. About a dozen years ago I was jogging on a park trail on a warm spring day, without a care in the world, when something whacked me, hard, in the back of the head. I touched my scalp, and my fingers came away covered with blood.
Angry and alarmed, I scanned the woods for the maniac who had hurled a rock at me. I assumed it was someone I had hounded from the park for illegal hunting or dirt-biking. Then I heard a high-pitched staccato shriek. I glanced up and spotted a large hawk with a white speckled chest and gray back glaring at me from a branch about 25 feet above the trail. A big nest balanced on nearby branches.
I backed down the trail 30 or 40 feet, eyeing the bird, then whirled around and ran home. I recounted the ambush to my wife, Suzie, a wild-bird rehabilitator who specializes in raptors--and who wrote a memoir about her exploits, Flyaway.
Suzie immediately deduced that I had encountered a female goshawk; they are much bigger than males and notoriously aggressive in protecting their young. She commanded me not to run on the path under the goshawk nest for a couple of months, to give the youngsters time to fledge.
So naturally a day or two later I put a bicycle helmet on and climbed a slope near the goshawk nest to check it out. Sure enough, I could see several pale, fluffy babies inside the nest. The mom was there too, glaring at me. (My suspicion is that goshawks glare even when they're in a good mood.) Feeling safe in my helmet, I waved at her, returned to the trail and started jogging home.
Wham! Without any warning she whacked me again. One of her talons poked through my helmet (which was actually old and flimsy) and perforated my scalp; in the same instant she also raked my forehead. I felt lucky that she did not pierce my eyes.
When I went back home, my wife, now ex-wife, looked at my helmet and bloody face and said—and this is a quote from her memoir—"Oh, my God! What did you do to that bird!"
The goshawk, I'm guessing, attacked me with the classical technique.
Photo: Norbert Kenntner, Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Northern_Goshawk_ad_M2.jpg