A Falconer Reviews Helen Macdonald’s Acclaimed Bestseller, H Is for Hawk

By Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird magazine
March 23, 2015
H is for Hawk

Last fall, a remarkable memoir called H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, took the United Kingdom by storm, winning two prestigious awards and rising to the top of the bestseller list. It’s just been released in the U.S. and promises to do the same here. Last fall, our own Living Bird magazine published a review that highlighted Macdonald’s lyrical writing —but as a lifelong falconer I also give her high marks for providing a window into the minds of falconers and their birds.

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On the surface, H is for Hawk is a falconry book chronicling the training of a Northern Goshawk, and yet it is so much more. It is a brilliantly written memoir of the darkest time in Helen Macdonald’s life, as she struggled to cope with the sudden death of her father, noted photographer Alisdair Macdonald. The two had been close her entire life. Some of her fondest childhood memories are of hiking through fields together, with binoculars hung around their necks, as she looked at birds and he at airplanes.

Macdonald was devastated by the sudden loss of her father, Alisdair Macdonald, with whom she had shared a love of nature as a child. Photo courtesy Helen Macdonald.

What makes H is for Hawk special is how Helen Macdonald chose to deal with the grief she felt after her father’s death—by dropping out of human society and spending months alone, training and hunting with a hawk. This is not as strange as it might sound to a non-falconer. She had been working with raptors since childhood and was already an accomplished falconer. She knew that the kind of concentration required to train a hawk would be the best possible distraction for her. What is interesting is her choice of bird: a goshawk—one of the wildest, most difficult to train of raptors.

Macdonald is fascinated by falconry’s ancient roots, and she covers its history and lore excellently in parts of H is for Hawk and an earlier book, Falcon. It’s a fascination I share. As a 12-year-old, the first book I ever read about falconry was a translation of De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (On the Art of Hunting with Birds), by 13th-century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. It felt almost like Frederick was speaking to me from across the centuries, guiding me in my earliest falconry endeavors. Many years later, I traveled across Italy, visiting important Frederick II sites—where he was born, where he lived at various times, where he died—and wrote about the experience in my book Falcon Fever. I ended my journey at the cathedral in Palermo, Sicily, leaving a pair of my Peregrine Falcon’s bells at the foot of Frederick’s sarcophagus—alongside the fresh flowers that people still leave there all these centuries later.

I’ve always felt a strong connection with falconers in centuries past. What I learned from Frederick and other authors was how different the training of a raptor is from any other kind of animal training. Hawks are not social animals like dogs or horses—or people. (Only a handful of species—such as the Harris’s Hawk—has any kind of social structure beyond the pair.) Most raptors are loners. There’s no warmth there. They come together as pairs to breed, but for most of the year they lead solitary lives. If they weaken; if they fall ill or become injured, they die. That’s it. There is no pack mentality. No dominance and submission. No hierarchy of power.

“All of the accipiters can be difficult to train, but the goshawk is the worst, because it’s so big and strong and fierce. There’s even a falconry term called ‘yarak,’ which refers to a state of bug-eyed, murderous intensity goshawks get into sometimes.” Photo of Mabel the goshawk in her first year, courtesy Helen Macdonald.

So punishment doesn’t work with hawks, only positive reinforcement. You feed them. You care for them. You must show them only kindness, no matter what a hawk might do to you. If it bites you, claws you, or grabs your bare hand, sinking its talons deep into your flesh, you must remain impassive, and wait—sometimes for a long time—until the bird deigns to release its hold. You must be a model of patience and gentleness with a hawk.

This is something I find endlessly fascinating about falconry: the fact that even if you’re a mighty king, or an emperor like Frederick II, you must come to your hawk, hat (or crown) in hand, like a supplicant. It’s an unusual relationship, the height of self-denial, perhaps most akin to that of a medieval monk, clad in a hair shirt and sitting alone without comfort of any kind in a cold stone cell.

The early stages of training a hawk (especially one that is wild-trapped or was raised in a free loft) are all about getting the bird accustomed to being close to a human. Sometimes it’s difficult even to get them to sit on your fist, let alone feel comfortable there. And you can’t even look at them, because, in the fang-and-claw world of predators, a fixed stare often precedes an attack. So you must look away, casting your eyes downward through most of the training process.

I remember all too well my early experiences in training a fresh-trapped Cooper’s Hawk—a mid-sized cousin of the goshawk—when I was in my teens. It was a lonely process—for the first two weeks walking back and forth late into the night with the bird on my fist: first in my room, then in my yard, and finally in the field, where I trained her to return to me when I blew a whistle. I’ll never forget the first time she caught wild game, a common House Sparrow, just three weeks after I trapped her. My mind filled with doubt. Would she let me approach her and pick her up from her kill? Or would she fly off with the bird she had caught and resume her life in the wild? She could easily have done that—but she didn’t. Instead she stepped easily up to my fist, finished her meal, cleaned her beak, and shook her feathers—called a “rouse” in falconry parlance, a sure sign of contentment.

At that moment I knew that all the hard work had paid off, and we were a team. I flew her for the rest of the season, during which she caught many more birds and a few rabbits. I released her back to the wild the following spring. This was an ideal situation for the hawk, which got through her difficult first winter—when a majority of young raptors die. And she was released in the mildest time of year.

All falconers are stoics—or at least we try to be. We train ourselves to hide our innermost feelings. We have to, or we’d never get anywhere in the training of a hawk. To these birds, we must always present ourselves as an unshakable rock—an impassive, immovable presence in their lives. Emotions make raptors nervous. They’re the only ones in this relationship who can show their feelings. Unfortunately, I think we falconers sometimes carry this impassivity into our human relationships, holding our feelings in check, hiding our emotional and spiritual anguish from everyone in our lives. In the darkest nights of our soul, we all too often stand alone—with a fierce, unloving raptor on our fist.

Macdonald isolated herself after her father’s death, conquering her despair by spending months alone training “Mabel.” Photo by Christina McLeish.

This is where Helen Macdonald was mentally and emotionally in the months following her father’s death. Even in the heart of Cambridge, she was cut off from her friends and family, by her own choice. But she did have two soul mates in this endeavor—a wild-eyed goshawk named Mabel and the ghost of author T.H. White, who had trodden this same path in the 1930s. White, famous for writing The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone, and other classics, dropped out of human society, moving into a hovel of a cottage in the English countryside to train a goshawk. It was an utter disaster, ending ultimately with the bird’s escape. White’s book, The Goshawk, chronicles his misadventures in great detail. I remember reading it as a teenager and cringing at times at his ineptitude with the hawk. And yet, his writing was so brilliant, I couldn’t help but read it again and again.

White never really stood a chance of succeeding with this hawk. He was a complete novice—had never even handled a bird of prey previously—and yet here he was, trying to train the most difficult raptor of all. This is something that a non-falconer reading The Goshawk or H Is for Hawk might not get. There’s a world of difference between, say, a falcon and an accipiter (such as a Northern Goshawk, Cooper’s Hawk, or Sharp-shinned Hawk). I’ve flown enough falcons and accipiters to know that they are vastly different animals. (It didn’t surprise me when DNA work revealed that falcons are more closely related to parrots than to accipiters.)

All of the accipiters can be difficult to train, but the goshawk is the worst, because it’s so big and strong and fierce. There’s even a falconry term called “yarak,” which refers to a state of bug-eyed, murderous intensity goshawks get into sometimes. They definitely have a reptilian edge to them. If birds are truly dinosaurs, perhaps it’s not difficult to imagine the goshawk’s distant kinship with Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor! White should never have attempted training a goshawk until he’d had some experience flying easier birds. (He did later go on to become an accomplished falconer, successfully flying a goshawk and a number of Peregrine Falcons and other birds.)

Helen Macdonald could certainly have taken the easy way out and spent that season of despair flying a well-tempered Peregrine Falcon or a Merlin, but she didn’t. She had demons to conquer—both hers and T.H. White’s. I won’t spoil it and tell you how things went with Helen and Mabel, but instead encourage you to read the book. H is for Hawk is a courageous tour de force of writing—emotionally honest and harrowing in its intensity. I’m grateful she was willing to share her story.

Tim Gallagher at age 14. Photo by Janet Gallagher

Tim Gallagher is the editor of Living Birdthe Cornell Lab’s member magazine. He’s pictured here at age 14, with a Red-tailed Hawk and its jackrabbit kill.

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  • Billy McGilvray

    A fantastic book and so beautiful are tge descroptions of Mabel, Helen and the English countryside. I was inspired by it and as a lover of birds of prey it was such a great read. Helen is a remarkable woman and Mzbel a remarkable Hawk.

  • Tim Gallagher

    I agree. H is for Hawk is a great book. Thanks for you comment.

  • Lisa Ludlow

    A wonderful well written review taking me deeper into a world I have yet to explore. I look forward to reading the book. Thank you.

  • Tim Gallagher

    I’m sure you’ll enjoy the book, Lisa.

  • Florence Wiley

    I heard the author interviewed on the “DR Show” and just had to have the book. It arrived this week and I’m enjoying it very much. Her writing style is so beautiful, so descriptive – a joy to read.

  • A brilliant review of a brilliant book. Bravo!

  • Larry Owens

    loved the book and the authoritative review. Fascinating subject and great literature in my opinion.

  • Larry Owens

    Loved the review and the book. Thanks!

  • This review makes me want to read this book. Thank you for a very well-written review.

  • Thank you Tim for your heartfelt review. Your words resonated with me, as my first bird to man was a tiercel apache gos. I am not a falconer, rather a wildlife educator, partnering with raptors in public programs. 25 years into it I find myself nodding at your words, understanding that you get it.
    I look forward to reading this book and hopefully telling others about it as well

  • Elizabeth Domike

    I loved The Once and Future King and was astonished to find that two of the things that interest me very much (I have poured over the old falconry books in our local library for no reason I have ever understood) and White’s book were woven together in this wonderful harrowing narrative. I listened to the audiobook version and enjoying hearing her voice place the emphasis and I fretted the whole way through for Gos, for White, for Mabel and Ms. Macdonald. This book is a wonderful gift to all and particularly to those of us drawn to raptors.

  • Tim Gallagher

    I completely agree with you, Florence. I’ve already read the book twice!

  • Tim Gallagher

    Thank you for the kind words, Sami.

  • Tim Gallagher

    Thank you, Larry. Falconry has been an endlessly fascinating thing for me since at least the age of 12.

  • Tim Gallagher

    Thanks, Anne. The book is much better than my review, but I appreciate the kind words.

  • Allison Herfindahl

    Wonderful review Tim,
    I have read this special book, and purchased 4 copies to share with family and friends. I have a very good friend who is a falconer and I work with his birds, in particular his Harris Hawk Hot Shot. There is a love I have for this particular bird, and my friend lets me feed, hunt with and ” talk to” this bird. I have never been able to explain the feelings I have until I read this book. I lost my Father to cancer 6 years ago. We had worked side by side for 35 years. I have had difficulty processing my grief and when Hot shot came into my life, it was the distraction I needed.
    So you can see why I enjoyed and treasure Helens book. I resognated with her feelings for her father and Mable to a tee.
    People who read her beautiful descriptions of her undertaking of a Goshawk, and her admiration for raptors and falconry are in for a heartfelt journey. Her words will shed a light on falconry that will be as positive as the dedication of those who practice it.
    Thank you again for your review.

  • Tim Gallagher

    Thanks, Jenny. Yes, there are some things about the relationship between a falconer and his or her bird that are almost impossible to convey to someone who’s never worked with a bird of prey. I’m glad you “get it.”

  • Tim Gallagher

    Thanks for your comment, Elizabeth. I’ve always loved T.H. White’s books, too. After reading Helen Macdonald’s book, I have a much better understanding of who he was.

  • Tim Gallagher

    Thanks, Larry.

  • Tim Gallagher

    Thank you, Allison. I can see why the book is special to you. You and Helen both lost your fathers and coped with your grief by flying a hawk. I love this book for similar reasons, and it actually helped me to come to terms with my own feelings of grief and despair after the death of one of my children.

  • Allison Herfindahl

    Tim, thank you for your response.
    I am heartbroken for your loss. I do hope that this book was helpful for your grief. Your review will inspire many to pick up this book. I thank you for that, as will the many people who will read it because of you.

  • Tim Gallagher

    Thanks, Allison.

  • Jacqui

    What a thoughtfully written review. Tim, I so enjoyed the way that you infused your connection to the book into the review. You gave it such depth and piqued my curiosity for falconry, particularly the stoic emotional state that benefits the relationship between raptor and trainer. I am a bird lover and have a deep connection with hawks and raptors…the hawk also having special significance after the death of my father. I look forward to reading this book and thank you for your thoughtful and thought provoking review. It really needed to be reviewed by someone who understands falconry the way that you do! With my best regards.

  • Antonia Hall

    What an inspiring review–I love raptors and am an avid birdwatchers in general–I am excited to read this book: Thanks Tim!

  • Tim Gallagher

    Thanks, Jacqui. I’m glad you enjoyed my review. It was easy to write because the book is so interesting. Several non-falconer friends had asked me to review it to help them understand more fully what the relationship between a falconer and hawk is like. I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading Helen’s book.

  • Tim Gallagher

    Thanks, Antonia. If you love raptors, you’ll definitely love reading H is for Hawk. Enjoy!

  • Carol Neuman

    I loved “H is for Hawk”, and I’ve bought White’s “Goshawk” to read as well. Now that a pair of Red Tailed Hawks have joined the Coopers Hawk in patrolling our backyard feeders, the birds and the squirrels are being terrorized – but my attitude has changed after reading H is for Hawk, thanks to Helen’s wonderful book.

  • Tim Gallagher

    Thanks, Carol. I’m sure Helen Macdonald will be glad to hear that her book changed your attitude toward hawks. I hope you enjoy T.H. White’s book, too.

  • Sam Dugan

    I plan to read “H is for Hawk”. I’m unsure whether to get the book or an e-book. Is it illustrated? If so, I’ll get a hard copy.

  • Melissa Tucker

    I love the Chris Wormell linocut used for the cover! His prints of animals are so bold and whimsical.

  • Hugh

    Hi Sam – The book is not illustrated – hope this helps your decision! – Hugh

  • Tim Gallagher

    I love the cover, too, Melissa. It’s perfect for the book.

  • Caro McAdam

    Thanks for your brilliant review Tim – and it sounds as if you have a few stories in you too.. Have you written any books?

    I love H is for Hawk so much that I feel quite protective of it and Helen MacDonald so it’s wonderful to read such praise from someone who knows more than most about falconry. It’s a fascinating world!

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  • Tim Gallagher

    Thanks, Caro. I’m glad you enjoyed my review. Like you, I loved reading H IS FOR HAWK. And yes, I have written several books, but only one about falconry: FALCON FEVER. My other books are THE GRAIL BIRD, IMPERIAL DREAMS, PARTS UNKNOWN, and WILD BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY. Thanks again for your comment.

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • Phil Fitzpatrick

    Just read five excerpts to my book group tonight. They were spellbound. I have been transfixed by Macdonald’s descriptions of these birds, Mabel in particular, of course. The prose is so vibrant, genuinely pleasing as well as scientifically accurate. Although the book could use a glossary of falconry language, Macdonald is very conscientious about explaining what most of the more commonly used terms are: jesses, bating, manning, tiercels, and such. I’m moved by her steady devotion to revealing more about T.H. White to read his The Once and Future King. TRhis really is a remarkable book. Thanks for the thorough, informative, and inspiring review, Tim.

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • Tim Gallagher

    You’re welcome, Phil. I’m glad you enjoyed my review–and Helen Macdonald’s book!

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • Mary

    I feel most sorry for her brother and mother who dealt with their grief without wallowing in self pity and crankiness. As a child of a family with rivers of depressive disorders, I wish someone had told Helen that chemical imbalances can be helped with medications. Hope her other family members made it through okay.

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • Linda Liebelt

    Thanks for this most insightful review of Ms. Macdonald’s extraordinary book. A friend recommended it to me after hearing of the death (due to old age) of my beloved parrot Sophie. I am not now nor plan to become a falconer, but still I related to Ms. Macdonald’s relationship to her goshawk Mabel. I totally agree that it takes an extraordinary amount of patience to bond with and train any bird. What amazed me about her relationship with Mabel is that she bonded and trained Mabel without trying to make a “house pet” of her. Mabel would fly free, and returned to her human (Ms. Macdonald) because she chose to. Amazing!!! I loved this book.

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • Caro McAdam

    Linda, I saw Helen Macdonald reading in London recently – she now has a parrot!

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • Peter Simmons

    Don’t trap wild birds for your own selfish purposes.

  • J Miller

    Mr. Gallagher- Great review! I am very excited to read about your interest because I think my 12 year old daughter is your kindred spirit. Eva desperately wants to learn about falconry. I am very ignorant about this. I am so glad my Google search led me to this review. I am going to get her your book and also check out Living Bird. If anyone has pointers on how to get her started -clubs, groups, etc. Any advice is appreciated. I am including her beloved bird of prey that she has pretended to falconer since she was about 7.

A Falconer Reviews Helen Macdonald’s Acclaimed Bestseller, H Is for Hawk