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The Hearts and Souls of Passionate, Grudge-Holding Hawks

A new book by nature writer Sy Montgomery is another gem.

 Deborah Delahunty, with permission.
Sy releases a rehabilitated broadwing hawk.
Source: Deborah Delahunty, with permission.

Sy Montgomery is one of the world's finest nature writers. Her books are read by people all over the world, and her latest, The Hawk's Way: Encounters with Fierce Beauty, is another winner.

I've always found hawks to be fascinating birds. I've been chased by them while cycling and once got too close to a mother and her fledglings high up in a tree and was assaulted by her when she slammed into my helmet and almost knocked me off my bike. As it turned out, I learned that mom only selectively accosted cyclists wearing yellow helmets, both on my own and others' rides.

Sy aptly describes hawks as "deeply emotional animals, quick to show anger and frustration, and can hold a grudge for years." They're also loyal and intensely aware of their surroundings.

Here's what she had to say about her latest venture into the fascinating world of animals, showing how hawks can teach us about nature, life, and love.

Sy Montgomery, with permission.
Source: Sy Montgomery, with permission.

MB: Why did you write The Hawk's Way?

SM: When I initially wrote the main body of this book, my intent was to explore one particular aspect of what makes a bird a bird. Of course, there are many aspects to the Class Aves: They all have feathers; their bodies are made for flight and are composed largely of air. But in this book, I wanted to explore something about birds that escapes most people: their raptorial ferocity. From the timidest titmouse to the giant ostrich, birds are all descendants of the predatory, theropod dinosaurs—the likes of Velociraptor and T. Rex. Nothing illustrates this better than the world's more than 200 species of hawks.

MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

SM: I've loved every kind of animal, including birds, all my life. In fact, the first male who ever made love to me was a parakeet. I was in grade school, and he threw up on my finger. I was enchanted!

MB: Who is your intended audience?

SM: I write for people who are interested in the "Others"—the species other than our own that comprise the majority of souls on this sweet green Earth. I write to get across the fact that all animals, in some way, think, feel and know.

MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book, and what are some of your major messages?

SM: I've been a vegetarian for 40 years and grieve the corpse of every squirrel I see hit on the road. Hawks are ferocious hunters—which is why some bird lovers hate hawks, especially when they haunt their bird feeders. I wanted to get inside the mind of these hunters—and in doing so, I explored the question: How do you love someone so drastically different from yourself?

And unlike other birds I have known—my beloved hens (who have been victims of hawk attack), my parakeet, Jerry, and the unwanted Rosella, a cockatiel I adopted much later—hawks do not show you affection—at least not in the way we recognize. You can't pet them. They don't like to be touched. They will not come to your defense like a dog or comfort you when you are sad like a cat. And yet I gave my heart to these raptors. What does it feel like to fall in love with someone who will never love you back—at least not in the way humans love? What does this do to your soul?

MB: How does your book differ from others concerned with some of the same general topics?

SM: Two other excellent books on a similar topic are Helen MacDonald's magnificent H is for Hawk and my own falconry instructor's memoir, Peregrine Spring—both of which were written and published after the experiences I wrote about in this book. Both were written by experienced falconers. H is for Hawk describes how training a goshawk helped MacDonald deal with the devastating, sudden death of her father. Peregrine Spring details Nancy's 30 years as a falconer.

My book brings new eyes, from strange quarters, to the experience of falconry. I am the last person in the world anyone would expect to go hunting. And yet, in the company of the hawks I had gotten to know and love, there I was, in partnership with them, on their quest for not just their sustenance but their deepest desire.

MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about the amazing lives of hawks and other animals, they will treat them with more respect and dignity?

SM: That is indeed my hope. Many people revere hawks because they are strong, graceful, and brave. But others dislike them because they are predators—and predators (wolves, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes in North America, tigers and dholes in Asia, lions and wild dogs and hyenas in Africa) are usually the first type of animals that humans systematically attempt to eradicate—because it's perceived that they compete with us.

But erasing native predators always causes a disaster, a trophic cascade of environmental catastrophe that changes the healthy balance of nature down to the very chemistry of the soil and water. Raptors face terrible threats today: Habitat loss is the worst, some of which is due to climate change, but also from lead poisoning, poisoning from rodenticides, collisions with aircraft and windows, and outright persecution by people who don't like them. Unscrupulous people from pigeon-racing and pigeon-shooting communities often target raptors and, even though it's illegal, will shoot and poison them. But for their beauty and courage, for their role in keeping the world whole, hawks deserve not only our respect but our reverence. They can lead us to a new way to love.


In conversation with Sy Montgomery. For more information on Sy's other fascinating books click here.

Bekoff, Marc. Cooperation in Animals: From Ants to Rats to Clusterflocks.