H is for Hawk

June 4, 2015 • 1:00 pm

I can’t recommend highly enough the new book by Helen Macdonald: H is for Hawk.  It is up there with J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine as one of my favorite books about nature, but Macdonald’s book is very different. While Baker’s is about observing wild peregrines near his home, and is entirely lyrical writing about nature (with a barely detectable undertone of sadness), Macdonald’s tells three stories at once. After her father dies (her memories are one of the stories), Macdonald falls to pieces, trying to find solace in training a goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) to hunt.  She had previous experience in falconry, but not with the notoriously unruly goshawk (she names hers “Mabel”), which, unlike peregrines, hunts low above the ground.

Along with her story, and that of Mabel, Macdonald recounts the life of author T. H. White, best known for writing The Once and Future King. White, too, trained a goshawk, but also had a contorted existence, much of which Macdonald analyzes in the work. White was a closeted gay with sadistic tendencies, and apparently worked out some of these through hunting with a bird.

Macdonald’s prose is impeccable: her life, White’s life, and the doings of her hawk are keenly observed. I am not sure how writers do this, but she, like many of the great ones, has the ability to analyze her life as she lives it, and then describe her feelings in luminescent prose. Like a painter, she sees things and has feelings that simply aren’t available (or describable) to the rest of us. The book is deeply engrossing and wonderful. If it has one fault, it’s that she seems to try too hard to tie everything together at the end, which seems a tad contrived. But it’s one of the best memoirs—if you can call it that—I’ve read in years, and I think nearly all readers here would like it.


While we’re on goshawks, I’m combining this post with an old draft (I have nearly 900 drafts that I’ve never posted!) based on a piece about goshawks in March’s New York Times: “Nature’s fighter jets with flapping wings“. It shows the variety of flight paths that goshawks use to intersect with their prey, and there’s also a video, which I show below. The paper on which it’s based, from the Journal of Experimental Biology, can be found here (reference and link below), and I’ll let you read it for yourself. Here’s the video summarizing the authors’ findings:

Here’s a trained goshawk flying through holes of different size and shape. Notice how it uses its feet as support when flying:

Below is amazing video of a goshawk navigating through thick forest, taken with a camera mounted on the bird’s head. Goshawks are used to catch pheasants, rabbits, and other ground-dwelling prey; their hunting flights are short and often go through brush and forests:

Finally, here’s some classic goshawk hunting in Ireland. The hunters use a dog to flush the prey. Macdonald didn’t do that, but relied on either seeing the prey herself (Mabel was of course good at this when carried on a gloved hand) or flushing it while walking through the brush:


Kane, S. A., A. H. Fulton and L. J. Rosenthal. 2015. When hawks attack: animal-borne video studies of goshawk pursuit and pre-evasion strategies. Experimental Biology: 218:212-222.

16 thoughts on “H is for Hawk

  1. I recently finished reading “H is for Hawk” – this website made me recall the book (I must have read a review about it somewhere, possible The Guardian, or the book review in Nature). I loved it – very clear and absorbing writing, indeed.

    Looking forward to more book recommendations!

      1. Yes, that’s the post – I commented there as well about the same thing, having read about the book before …

        And yes, that was also my thought, that The Albatross has been too much of a distraction for other reading. But, after years of reading sophisticated theology (TM), Dr Coyne must be looking forward to pleasure reading!

  2. Met MacDonald at a dinner in Toronto a couple of months ago and got my book signed ( haven’t had a chance to begin it – or The Albatross yet). She was very appealing and the book sounds very interesting.

    One reason I haven’t yet begun Hawk, is that I have just begun Simon Scama’s magnificent Rembrandt’s Eyes- 702 pages and weighs at least 10 lbs. in paperback! Highly highly recommended, but if’s gonna take a while…

  3. I’m nearing the end of H is for Hawk and agree it’s a special read. With my Kindle I find myself highlighting compulsively clever turns of phrase and expressions of insight that I want to remember. Thanks for posting the remarkable goshawk videos!

  4. Notice they call it a gun club but no guns. Maybe change to bird club? Watching a good bird dog work is the best fun.

  5. Amazing. These just shows to go ya that you do not want to be a bird when a goshawk is aboot.

  6. I gave up reading H less than half way through. I couldn’t take any more of her writing. Jerry calls it luminescent but to me the prose was too purple, distracting me by drawing attention to itself. Not my cup of tea.

    The book seems to be universally acclaimed but it’s not for me. I’m about to start reading Nick Lane’s latest book. Now that is something I’m looking forward to as I’ve really liked all his previous books. That’s the kind of prose I like.

    1. I recently heard Helen Macdonald speak at Hay-On-Wye (https://www.hayfestival.com/)and she was a compelling speaker. At one point she said, before reading a section, “this sounds really up itself but…” and then went on to read something you wouldn’t like. In person she was funny & self-deprecating but with a real gift for language. It’d be a shame to stifle that.

  7. Such breath-taking birds!

    I bought this book when Jerry first mentioned it, and have let it get buried by newer reading matter; must unearth it!

      1. Oh, does that shoe ever fit!

        And IIRC, applies to something like 95% of us WEITians as well. 🙂

  8. Yes, a wonderful book. Sorry some people didn’t enjoy the prose, I thought it was excellent. I sent a copy to my mom.

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