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For best-selling author Sy Montgomery, working with hawks requires the purest form of love

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Sy Montgomery (Tianne Strombeck)
Sy Montgomery (Tianne Strombeck)

Host Robin Young speaks with best-selling author and naturalist Sy Montgomery about her new book "The Hawk's Way: Encounters with Fierce Beauty" in which Montgomery writes about working with hawks as they hunt.

Banshee peregrine falcon (Tianne Strombeck)
Banshee peregrine falcon (Tianne Strombeck)
Red shouldered hawk. (Tianne Strombeck)
Red shouldered hawk. (Tianne Strombeck)

Book excerpt: 'The Hawk's Way'

By Sy Montgomery

Introduction

Inches from my face, I hold a living dinosaur.

Like his ancestors, the creature I hold on my fist is a hunter, an eater of meat. As did his forebears, the therapod dinosaurs—creatures like Allosaurus, Velociraptor, Tyrannosaurus—this bipedal predator possesses long arms, swiveling wrists, large finger bones, and forward-facing eyes bestowing excellent binocular vision. Like them, when he hatched out of the egg, he was covered with down. As with many of them, his baby down then gave way to feathers.

The difference is, unlike the other dinosaurs, the one before me can fly.

His name is Mahood. He’s a young Harris’s hawk, a species native to the American southwest, with bold feather markings of mahogany brown, chestnut red, and white, and long yellow legs, his feet tipped in curved, obsidian talons. In August, he was transported from the breeder where he’d hatched in upstate New York to take up residence with my friend and neighbor, Henry Walters, a poet, parent, and master falconer.

"The Hawk's Way" by Sy Montgomery. (Courtesy)
"The Hawk's Way" by Sy Montgomery. (Courtesy)

Mahood and I are meeting for the first time. He has not yet learned how to hunt. Henry is trying to teach him. Henry wants Mahood to get used to being around people, which is why he’s asked me to grab my falconry glove and come over.

Mahood consents to perch on my glove. But the next moment, without any warning, he turns his head, looks into my eyes, opens his yellow, razor-sharp beak, and screams, full force, into my face.

Mahood does not like me, and is not shy about announcing this. His is not a scream of fear, but of fury: the voice of an angry dinosaur. All birds, we now know from fossils and DNA, are, in fact, what became of the reptiles who once ruled the earth, creatures we all used to think were extinct. That they are not is a truth that Darwin’s champion, Thomas Huxley, suspected as early as 1867; he called birds “glorified reptiles.” But the connection between birds and dinosaurs is impossible to miss in a raptor.

My husband, watching from a comfortable distance, is alarmed by Mahood’s scream. He’s used to seeing strange dogs and cats, pigs and chickens, horses, and even an octopus, relax to my touch. But I am not surprised at all by Mahood’s reaction. Hawks, as I now know well, are different.

My falconry instructor, Nancy Cowan, made this clear from the start: A hawk does not want you to touch it. It does not want to be petted. Ever. Not even a hawk you have raised from a hatchling and fed from your hand. Eventually, some hawks will, under certain circumstances, consent to your touch--but they don’t like it. A single mistake handling a raptor, even one you know well, may provoke it to bite you, stab its talons into your flesh, or both.

Sometimes a hawk you’ve worked with for months or even years will attack. Henry’s previous hawk, a big female redtail, Mary, one day flew out of a tree and, instead of landing on his glove, strafed his ear, slicing through the cartilage with her outstretched talons. The upper part of his ear flopped over like a Labrador’s. (Emergency room doctors braced it so it would heal upright again.) Why? We never knew. (My husband sent me out with a hard hat the next time I flew her with Henry--but I left it behind, because many hawks dislike hats and scream at you till you take it off.)

Hawks do not play by our rules. You can never assume that a hawk, even one you raised from a chick, will forgive your mistakes--sometimes a single error ruptures the relationship forever. A hawk will not come to your rescue if you’re in trouble. A hawk will not comfort you if you are sad. What a falconry hawk will do, if you do everything right, is allow you to be their hunting partner—“the junior partner,” Nancy is quick to point out, for the hawk, with its exquisite vision and lightening responses, is always the superior hunter.

Coopers hawk. (Tianne Strombeck)
Coopers hawk. (Tianne Strombeck)

“It’s a funny kind of relationship you have with a hawk,” Henry tells me weeks later. We are walking through the forest, and Mahood is keeping pace with us, flying overhead, then perching on tree limbs, looking down and keeping track of us below, what falconers call “following on.” Mahood is still immature, and Henry is well aware of the responsibility he bears for nurturing this young soul. But what is the nature of the bond you can share with a raptor?

“It’s confusing,” says Henry. “It’s love, but all mixed up with nerves and hunger and the hunt. Humans love trying to keep up with superhuman things. It’s not like any other relationship you have with anyone else.”

If you do everything right, a hawk will allow you to act as its servant. And for this, the falconer is profoundly grateful.

The birds of prey preserve an ancient, primal wildness, conserved in their kind since the beginning of the world. And it’s exactly for this reason that, more than a decade after my first experiences with falconry, which I will share in the following pages, I still come back for more. I am still learning.

Today, the birds I first flew with Nancy are gone, but I have come to know their successors, and enjoy flying them with her. I’m thrilled Mahood is living on our street and plan to join Henry flying him often. And I am always looking overhead for raptors, listening for the wild and savage sound of their voices.

I am drawn, and expect I ever will be, to the company of hawks--to be bathed, like a baptism, in the presence of their fierce, wild glory.

Excerpted from "The Hawk’s Way" by Sy Montgomery. Copyright © 2022 by Sy Montgomery. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

This segment aired on May 11, 2022.

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