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Hawk eyed: how to write about birds of prey

From sacred symbolism in ancient mythology to paeans by 20th-century naturalists, hawks and eagles have always been lauded in art and literature.

Majestic flight: hawks have been considered sacred in cultures throughout history.
Majestic flight: hawks have been considered sacred in cultures throughout history.

Anyone who has ever stopped to watch a hawk in flight will know that this is one of the natural world’s most elegant phenomena. In many traditions, hawks are sacred: Apollo’s messengers for the Greeks, sun symbols for the ancient Egyptians and, in the case of the Lakota Sioux, embodiments of clear vision, speed and single-minded dedication.

Yet, for all their grandeur, airborne hawks are difficult to describe. It takes the finest of naturalists to capture a sense of their wonder – those such as Edwin Way Teale, who, in one of the most affecting pieces of nature writing I have ever read, describes a field trip to eastern Pennsylvania’s “hawkways” to see how raptors from all over New England seek out the powerful updraughts that run along the Kittatinny Ridge and sail “almost without an effort – just as, for ages, their ancestors had done – mile after mile on their long journey to a winter home”.

This passage, from Teale’s all but forgotten classic The Lost Woods (1945), celebrates not just the birds’ grace and power but also their attunement to the land, in words at once elegant and unsentimental. It is painful when that celebration is overshadowed. “During the early years of the present century,” Teale writes, “and even into the 1930s, many of these birds got no farther than the cliff on which we stood. Taking advantage of the fact that the migrating hawks frequently were forced close to this observation point . . . local gunners and big-city ‘sports’ blasted away, riddling the slow-moving birds as they soared, almost helplessly, within range of their guns.” Wagon-loads of the “dead, maimed and dying” were left to rot at the foot of the cliff: “The stench of their decomposition filled the air all during the height of the migration period.”

“I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk,” wrote the Californian poet Robinson Jeffers – a sentiment all too typical of this uncompromising writer, whose good advice that we should “unhumanise our views a little” was all too often tainted by disgust for his fellow human beings (in one poem, he declared that he would rather be “a worm in a wild apple than a son of man”).

Like many a nature lover, Jeffers succumbed to despair as he witnessed the degradation of his homeland. It is difficult not to share that anger as we in turn register what is being done, for sport or money, or out of plain ignorance, to the land, the seas and the creatures that share them with us.

Edwin Way Teale was always a more hopeful spirit, even as he saw and criticised such crimes – he was an “appreciator” who knew that lament, elegy and protest must be tempered by out-and-out celebration of what endures. Having begun his working life as an entomologist, Teale found pleasure in the smallest details of creaturely life, from the “golden throng” of his beehives to the day-by-day changes that he eulogises in his 1953 volume Circle of the Seasons. Like his hero, the English botanist Reginald Farrer, he was always mindful of what Farrer called “those things that we all possess inviolable for ever”.

I can think of nothing more despicable than the hunters who lined up to cut down Teale’s birds at the most vulnerable point of their seasonal migration but eventually their sport was brought to an end by a group of conservationists who purchased the Kittatinny ridge-top and turned it into the world’s first hawk sanctuary.

It may be that some of those good people were the newly enlightened descendants of previous hawk-killers. Some hope remains that Jeffers’s despair can be trumped by Teale’s celebratory sense of a “timelessness” in nature, even if “all around us are the inconstant and the uncertain”.