Black goshawk (Accipiter melanoleucus)

Also known as: black sparrowhawk
French: Autour noir
GenusAccipiter (1)
SizeLength: 40 – 54 cm (2)

Classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

The largest of the African Accipiter species, the black goshawk is a distinctive bird of prey with conspicuous black and white plumage, rounded wing tips and a long tail (2). Although the adult plumage is generally black above and white below, there is considerable variation in patterning between individuals. Most commonly, the breast is white with black blotches and speckling along the flanks and thighs and sometimes across the belly, but some individuals are entirely black except for a white patch around the throat (2) (4). The juvenile black goshawk has markedly different plumage to the adult, which also varies between individuals. While the head is brown with dark streaks and the upperparts are plain brown, the underparts may be either reddish-brown with dark streaks or creamy white (2) (4). Although normally silent, during breeding, the male black goshawk makes a loud keeyp, and the female, a short kek (5).

There are currently two recognised subspecies of black goshawk, which occupy different regions within this species’ extensive range. Accipiter melanoleucus temminckii is found from Senegal, eastwards to Gabon, Congo and Central African Republic, while Accipiter melanoleucus melanoleucus occurs in eastern Sudan and north-west Ethiopia, as well as in much of Central and southern Africa (4).

The black goshawk occupies nearly all types of forest within its range, from tropical lowlands to high mountain patches at elevations of up to 3,700 metres (2) (4). This species will also readily colonise plantations of exotic trees such as eucalyptus and pine, and may even be found in towns and cities (4) (6).

A formidable hunter, the black goshawk mainly feeds on birds, and is capable of tackling prey as large as guineafowl. This species’ main hunting technique is to perch on a tree, concealed amongst the foliage, from which it makes a rapid dash to intercept its unsuspecting prey. While this method usually brings immediate success, on occasion, it results in a prolonged, high-speed chase across forest, grassland and savanna. The black goshawk has adapted well to the expansion of urban development, exploiting the abundance of pigeons and doves found in town and cities (4).

The black goshawk’s breeding season varies according to location, with populations in West Africa breeding from August to November, while those in Central and southern Africa mainly breed from May to October (4). Breeding pairs are territorial, constructing their nests high up in tall forest trees, usually at least half a kilometre from other pairs (4) (6). A clutch of two to four eggs is laid and incubated for around 34 to 38 days before hatching. The young take a further 37 to 47 days to fledge, during which time the adult brings food, sometimes carrying it from as far as 12 kilometres away (4). During brooding the black goshawk employs an ingenious form of pest control. It lines the nest with strong-smelling eucalyptus leaves, which repel invertebrate pests and parasites, such as blood-sucking mites, that may harm the young (7). After the young have left the nest, the black goshawk pair may breed again, thereby producing multiple broods in a single year, a behaviour which is rare in birds of prey (8). The black goshawk generally remains resident at a single location for most of the year and nesting sites are frequently re-used. Nevertheless, this species rapidly colonises new plantations, and may occasionally undertake long excursions over sea, lake or desert (4)

Although the main threat to the black goshawk is deforestation, at present it is extremely abundant and unlikely to be undergoing a significant decline (1) (4). The black goshawk’s ability to adapt to secondary forest and exotic plantations also means that, unlike many species, it has benefitted from the increasing levels of commercial afforestation, and the resulting introduction of exotic trees, which are occurring in certain parts of Africa (6).

There are currently no specific conservation measures in place for the black goshawk (1). It is, however, likely to be found in many of the protected areas that occur throughout its large range (9).

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  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2011)