Book Review: H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald



H Is For Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, published by Grove Press, New York, copyright 2014, 283 pages.

It was one of those nights, becoming more frequent now, when I laid wide awake at 2 AM.  When this happens I reach over to the night stand, turn on the dim light, and grab whatever book or magazine I touch first.  Reading usually puts me back to sleep. This time it was an old New Yorker.  I started at the back to avoid those long current event articles in the front that I rarely agree with, and checked out the cartoon competition and then the book reviews. The title of the review, Rapt, Grieving With Your Goshawk, by Kathryn Schultz caught my eye–I had just finished my review and post of The Goshawk by T.H. White.  The coincidence grew as I read Schultz’s review of H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which itself is in part a review and commentary of T.H. White’s life and writings, including The Goshawk.  It seemed like a sign.  After a quick Amazon download to my Kindle, I was off and reading another hawk book and well into it by dawn’s early light.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

The author was a young graduate student in the history of science at Cambridge who recently lost her father to an unexpected cardiac death.  This book is a skillful weaving of three themes:  her personal grieving and situational depression and eventual recovery, the acquisition and training of a goshawk named Mabel, and a commentary of the life and works of T.H. White, the earlier 20th century author who was also a falconer and naturalist, and also struggled with depression. H Is For Hawk won the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction and the Costa Book of the Year prize.

Helen Macdonald’s father was a free lance photographer and former plane-spotter as a child.  His lessons of patient observation and sky-watching led to her unusual and precocious interest in birds, raptors, and falconry.  As a child she had already read White’s The Goshawk, Blaine’s Falconry, and all the related texts needed to master this art.  Prior to her fathers death she had already trained kestrels, merlins, and peregrines and was a former falcon breeder for the United Arab Emirates.

Peregrine Falcon with recent kill

Peregrine Falcon with recent kill

Why train a goshawk now with her grief so fresh and raw, and why a goshawk?  Its an uncommon, secretive, wild, and difficult hawk to train.  Just “looking for a goshawk is like looking for grace; you don’t get to say when or how.”  But its also the bird that T.H. White acquired when he sought to retreat from humankind and kindle his own feral self.  She was experiencing those same impulses.  As she relates the fascinating training of her young goshawk Mabel, she compares and contrasts her techniques with the love/hate relationship between White and his Gos.  But as this training goes on the reader senses the author’s growing alienation with humankind and identification with the bird, and her deepening depression.  The bills aren’t paid, mail and calls not returned, and human contact avoided.  As a reader I felt like an observer of a train-wreck in slow motion, not sure I wanted to see how this all ended, but the compelling writing kept me going to witness the recovery.

Black Kite

Black Kite

Midway through the book there is the memorable scene when Mabel is given her freedom to fly without constraints for the first time.  Remember this is a hawk bred and fledged by humans, never previously released to the wild.  Helen is “practically catatonic…this is ridiculous…I don’t want to be here…Oh!  And I let her go.  And immediately I wish I had not.  Suddenly my hawk is free”.  When the hawk does not immediately return to the fist Helen is devastated, “My beating, horrified heart, and my soul feeling like water at four degrees; heavier than ice, falling to the bottom of the ocean.  And suddenly she is back on the glove, I feel soaked in ice water, and I cannot believe she is not lost.  I feel like White:  a tyro, a fool, a beginner, an idiot.”

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

The first step in recovery is recognition of the illness.  At some point the author disagrees with the naturalists like Muir who celebrate becoming one with nature and one with the birds.  Most have a “little splinter of wildness” while coming home, having dinner, and participating in humanity.  But she realizes, “I don’t have both sides.  I only have wildness.  And I don’t need wildness any more…Human hands are for holding other hands.  Human arms are for holding other humans close.”  She wonderfully relates this process of repair and restoration, the role of her mother, the memorial service, her friends, professional help, and medication, eventually leading to the point of separating from her beloved Mabel during the long molting phase of spring.  After all, she has her own spring revival to tend to.

I don’t believe my short review does justice to this affecting and fascinating book.  Please refer to the Kathryn Schulz review in the March 9, 2014 New Yorker for a more in depth analysis, or better yet, read H Is For Hawk.  You won’t be sorry.


Book Review: The Goshawk by T.H. White

Peregrine Falcon, sorry, I do not have a photo of a Goshawk, but the Peregrine is a close but smaller cousin.

Peregrine Falcon. Sorry, I do not have a photo of a Goshawk.

The Goshawk, by T.H. White, published by the New York Review of Books, copyright 1951, 215 pages, introduction by Marie Winn.

I was browsing in the local bookstore, in the birds and wildlife section, when I saw this small paperback tucked on the bottom shelf between the large well known guides.  I tend to favor the smaller books and picked it up, but almost put it back when I discovered it was about falconry, published years ago.  No self-respecting birder would condone the enslavement of hawks, let alone pay good money to read an account of the practice from 1951.  Yet something I read on the back cover or introduction gave me pause and I made the purchase, and am glad I did.

T.H. White was an young Englishman, recently retired as an English professor and starting a literary career in 1936 when he wrote this book.  He had become a Thoreau-like recluse, living alone in a gamekeeper’s cottage, “tired of most humans”, when he received the fledging goshawk by mail-order from Germany.  The book is his non-fiction log of the training of the bird named Gos, using two dated manuals, one written in 1619, as his only guides.  It is a battle of wills, hawk vs. human, with the final result very much in doubt.  It is also the musings of an observant and perceptive naturalist with a discussion of the art and history of falconry, and what he learned about these willful birds and himself.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-Shouldered Hawk

The Northern Goshawk is the largest accipiter of North America, primarily seen in the northern forests.  Its name is derived from the Old English words gos (goose) and hafoc (hawk). It was known in ancient times as the “Bird of Apollo” and its symbol was worn by Attilia the Hun, testifying to the bird’s fierceness and power.  According to White the “hawks are sensitive to the eye and do not like to be regarded–it is their prerogative to regard.”  These characteristics make it one of the more difficult raptors to train for falconry, a lesson learned late by the author. The book briefly describes falconry as an ancient art and sport, primarily of the nobles, dating back to Mesopotamia 3000 years ago and reaching its peak in Medieval Europe.  In typical English fashion, a hierarchy of raptors was allowed to the falconer or austringer depending on ones class; an eagle for an emperor, a peregrine for an earl, a goshawk for a yeoman, and a kestrel for a knave.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

The book has only two characters of note, the author and Gos.   Its charm stems from the detailed description of their evolving relationship during the arduous, frustrating, and laborious training of this wild bird, spanning 3 months of days, and often sleepless nights.  Who will crack first, man or bird?  The author noted that his admiration of the skills of mothers and demands of motherhood grew from the experience.

During the training the bird was restrained by jesses or leather straps around the ankles, holding him initially by a short leash to a perch or the falconer’s padded arm. The early days consisted of frequent tantrums or “batings” of the wild bird.  Batings are “the headlong dive of rage and terror, by which a leashed hawk leaps from the fist in a wild bid for freedom, and hangs upside down by his jesses in a flurry of pinions like a chicken being decapitated, revolving, struggling, in danger of damaging his primaries.  It was the falconer’s duty to lift the hawk back to the fist with his other hand with gentleness and patience, only to have him bate again, once, twice, twenty, fifty times, all night…”.  The final breaking of the bird’s will and its acceptance of its human master required, according to the ancient lore, 72 hours of sleeplessness, enforced by the also sleepless trainer, nudging the bird awake, until the bird finally relaxes it feathers, droops it wings, drops its head, and succumbs to sleep, even in the presence of its new human master.  After this ordeal the formal training could begin.

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle

“Manning” the bird involved gradually introducing the bird to the outside world, including other humans, automobiles, dogs, and other birds. The author calmly stroked the bird through each of these inevitable batings caused by new worldly contacts, and verbally soothed Gos with the frequent recitation of the hymn, Lord, My Shepherd.  White would walk the countryside for miles with Gos on his arm, and even taught the bird to perch on the handle bars of the bicycle for longer trips.  The tired falconer’s patience however had it limits as evidenced by the various nick-names asssigned to Gos through the process;  Hittite, Absalom, insane assassin, Caligula, filthy bugger, and choleric beast. Gradually the leash was lengthened and Gos could test his wings, even up to several hundred feet.  The author learned the key to enticing the bird to return to the wrist was through his stomach.  Overfeeding and overuse of food as a reward was to be avoided as William Shakespeare relates in The Taming of the Shrew:

My falcon is now sharp and passing empty;

And, till she stoop, she must not be full-gorged,

For then she never looks upon her lure.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

One finds multiple themes in this book.  One is freedom vs. enslavement;  the soaring hawk is a symbol of freedom, but when man captures it, breaks its spirit, and uses it for its own aims, nature is corrupted.  Then there’s the theme of teacher vs. pupil, or parent vs. child and the need for the instructor’s loving patience and persistence, no matter what.  I recommend this book to all who find the subject of interest; the writing is superb.  I will not give away the outcome of this adventure, other than to say life is not always as we wish it to be.  The author goes on to train multiple other birds, but in closing, sadly quotes the old proverb, “When your first wife dies, she makes such a hole in your heart that all the rest slip through”.

 Other books by T.H. White include:  The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone, The Book of Merlyn, and The Queen of Air and Darkness.

Poetry Is For The Birds


When I announced that I was going to create a post about birds and poetry I got skeptical and disbelieving looks from family and friends.  “Now you’ve gone too far”, and “what do you know about poetry?” were the unspoken but sensed reactions.  And they may be right, but the beauty of blogging is like leaping off the cliff and hoping you learn to fly before you hit bottom.  If it speaks to you, share it with the world.

Why have birds inspired poets throughout history?  I believe it is in part due to flight.  Man envies the birds.  Their flight signifies freedom, independence, adventure, and travel; they’re not confined to the artificial boundaries and borders of man, but migrate across the oceans.  It is also due to their unique feathered beauty and coloration.  Some are small and vulnerable whereas others display strength, and even evoke fear.  Their song clearly has its appeal as discussed in an earlier post.

I have gathered together a short anthology of nine bird poems that have appealed to me.  My criteria for selecting them was merely my preference and their length–I like the short ones best.  I’ll admit I have a bias to the poetry of John Clare, the 19th century English poet and will start with one of his.  A friend of mine, Eric Robinson, has spent much of his life compiling and editing the manuscripts of Clare and introduced me to his work.  Clare is known as the “peasant poet” and celebrated the agrarian life and natural world, including birds in his poetry.

Hedge Sparrow, by John Clare

The tame hedge-sparrow in its russet dress

Is half a robin for its gentle ways

And the bird-loving dame can do no less

Then throw it out a crumble on cold days

In early March it into gardens strays

And in the snug clipt box-tree green and round

It makes a nest of moss and hair and lays

When e’en the snow is lurking on the ground

Its eggs in number five of greenish blue

Bright beautiful and glossy shining shells

Much like the firetail’s but of brighter hue

Yet in her garden-home much danger dwells

Where skulking cat with mischief in its breast

Catches their young before they leave the nest

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

For a change of pace, sample from the work of e. e. cummings.  I remember him as the 20th century poet that never found the shift key on his typewriter, but could succinctly capture the essence of birds in a few lines.  Here are selections about a Kingbird and Chickadee:

for any ruffian of the sky, by e. e. cummings

for any ruffian of the sky

your kingbird doesn’t give a damn–

his royal warcry is I AM

and he’s the soul of chivalry.

In terror of whose furious beak

(as sweetly singing creatures know)

cringes the hugest heartless hawk

and veers the vast most crafty crow.

your kingbird doesn’t give a damn

for murderers of high estate

whose mongrel creed is Might Makes Right

–his royal warcry is I AM.

true to his mate his chicks his friends

he loves because he cannot fear

(you see it in the way he stands

and looks and leaps upon the air)

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

spirit colossal, by e. e. cummings

spirit colossal

(&daunted by always

nothing) you darling

diminutive person.

jovial ego (&

mischievous tenderly

phoebeing alter)

clown of an angel.

everywhere welcome

(but chiefly at home in

snowily nowheres

of winter his silence).

give me a trillionth

part of inquisitive

merrily humble

your livingest courage.

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

The clever humor of Ogden Nash does not spare the birds.  This is one of my favorites.

The Grackle, by Ogden Nash

The grackle’s voice is less than mellow

His heart is black, his eye is yellow.

He bullies more attractive birds

With hoodlum deeds and vulgar words.

And should a human interfere,

Attacks the human in the rear.

I cannot help but deem the grackle

An ornithological debacle.

Common Grackle

Common Grackle

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was the 19th century Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland, noted for his “Charge of the Light Brigade”.  His short poem about the eagle paints a vivid picture in few words:

The Eagle, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;

He watches from his mountain walls,

And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Emily Dickinson, the 19th century New Englander takes the ubiquitous Migratorius turdus, and celebrates its certainty and overlooked beauty.

The Robin is the One, by Emily Dickinson

The Robin is the One

That interrupt the Morn

With hurried–few–express Reports

When March is scarcely on.

The Robin is the One

That overflow the Noon

With her cherubic quantity

An April but begun.

The Robin is the One

That speechless from her Nest

Submit the Home–and Certainty

And Sanctity, are best.

American Robin

American Robin

Can I return to Clare?

In Summer Showers a Skreeking Noise is Heard, by John Clare

In summer showers a skreeking noise is heard

Deep in the woods of some uncommon bird

It makes a loud and long and loud continued noise

And often stops the speed of men and boys

They think somebody mocks and goes along

And never thinks the nuthatch makes the song

Who always comes along the summer guest

The birdnest hunters never found the nest

The schoolboy hears the noise from day to day

And stoops among the thorns to find a way

And starts the jay bird from the bushes green

He looks and sees a nest he’s never seen

And takes the spotted eggs with many joys

And thinks he found the bird that made the noise

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch

In the poem by Frost you can just picture the wide-eyed children’s close encounter with the owl.

Questioning Faces, by Robert Frost

The winter owl banked just in time to pass

And save herself from breaking window glass.

And her wings straining suddenly aspread

Caught color from the last of evening red

In a display of underdown and quill

To glassed-in children at the window sill.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

I bird frequently in Pelican Bay near Naples, Florida and see and photograph many Brown Pelicans in various plumages.  I heard this poem for the first time from a literary birding friend and often repeat it on the beach as the Pelicans fly by and dive for fish.  It is a wonderful bird as Merritt famously documents below.

The Pelican, by Dixon Lanier Merritt

A wonderful bird is the Pelican.

His beak can hold more than his belly can.

He can hold in his beak

Enough food for a week!

But I’ll be darned if I know how the hellican?

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican