Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 15, 2015


“It would affect our thoughts, deepen and perchance darken our reflections, if such huge birds flew in numbers in our sky.”

Henry David Thoreau was referring to blue herons in this April 19, 1852 journal entry, but witnessing big, fierce, or even ordinary birds can change us. Yesterday my friend Jess dressed like a tree with dark pants, a green top, and some of her hair twisted into a nest on top as we had a chance to meet birds at New England Falconry.

Six of us sat on a shady bench in front of four tethered hawks as Chris Davis, master falconer with an advanced degree in Resource Management, told us some about the history of falconry. Records go back more than two thousand years, showing that falconry began as a way for people to share what hawks hunted. Falconry moved through Africa and the Middle East to a history more familiar to many of us: the Medieval and Renaissance men and women wearing cloaks and long leather gloves. There’s only about a hundred years of falconry history in the United States, where the first settlers were more likely to shoot than become allies with birds of prey. Falconry gained ground after two women, aghast at the slaughter done to provide feathers for fashionable hats, helped found Mass Audubon in 1896.


Some of us came with some mythology that’s explored, with much else, particularly all the guises of grief, in Helen Macdonald’s gritty and gorgeous memoir, H is for Hawk, which I’m reading now. Chris is all scientist. He gave us facts about varieties of birds of prey, habits, weights, the sharp eyesight and swiveling necks, and flight speeds (with the Harris hawks here can fly 30 to 40 mph, compared to the 200 plus mph of peregrine falcons.) When Jess asked him if his hawks had names, he told us they had numbers. When she asked if they had fun, he explained that he can only consider fun in terms of what animals do to survive.


Jess and I were scared and excited as we walked past multiflora roses, bent cattails, through fields of grass, buttercups, and clover. Those clawed feet look kind of crazy, and those beaks are sharp. But the hawks were as disciplined as promised. Chris’s calm presence helps keep the great birds on task and was a perfect backdrop for our marveling at the birds’ swooping arcs, the shapes of their wings, the wonder of their approximately two pound selves lighting on our gloved hands, then sweeping off as we swung back our arms. We left more attentive to what’s in the sky or trees, what’s on the ground, and the briefly visible magnificence in between. The world a little larger than we’d known.




  1. This is so cool, Jeannine!

    • Another somewhat hidden treasure of the valley. I hope you go! He holds these throughout the year. It would be something to see those birds fly over snow.

  2. Curious whether you learned the “number” of your hawk? I would have been slightly tempted to choose a friendly-sounding name to quell my excitement/anxiety!

    • We got to interact with two, I believe 52 and 57, though I can’t say those numbers have much ring to them, so not tempted. Happy just to hear them squack, and look them in the eye, which Chris assured us was fine and that they didn’t care. (obviously knowing some of us were going to think they cared!)

  3. Oh, I am so jealous! I would have loved to have been there, handling those gorgeous birds! I read H is for Hawk last month and I’m still reeling. I also ordered T.H. White’s book that MacDonald references–I’ve been a White fan since I was 14 and read The Once and Future King (which none of my students have ever heard of!). You-all get to do the coolest things in New England!

    • Candice, you would have loved it. I sometimes include The Once and Future King on my children’s lit curriculum: all those Harry Potter fans should really be reading it — may be my favorite novel with fantasy, certainly my favorite depiction of Arthur and Merlin.

  4. Wonderful to glimpse other worlds.

  5. I would have loved to have joined you for this, Jeannine! I love birds, and raptors are especially hauntingly beautiful and fierce. I am totally obsessed with red-tails 🙂 And Helen MacDonald’s memoir is one of my favorite reads of the year–a heartfelt blend of poetry, science and loss. Thanks to Cathy Ballou Mealey for bringing this post to my attention!!

    • I’m glad Cathy sent you over! I’m moved by the raptors but not obsessed, but love that other people are — one of the great things about Helen Macdonald’s book. I do hope that feeling of being more aware of the sky and fields sticks with me, even if I don’t become someone who carries around bits of beef and dead little chickens in a fanny pack, bless their falconry souls.

  6. This is such a soul satisfying post, Jeannine. I’m so glad you got to experience this and then to share it with us. Thank you. ❤

    • Lorraine, wish you would have been there. My friend Jess thought we might fly with the hawks, but she said it was all close enough.

  7. How fun! I first met Helen through a falconer friend who lives in New Hampshire. He took us hunting with his peregrine falcon, which was an amazing experience. (He also raises poison dart frogs and various other creatures and has a bog of carnivorous plants in his front yard!). I’m so glad you’re reading H is for Hawk. I thought you in particular would enjoy it.

    • Wow, you are keeping some pretty cool company! I think it was Stephanie Burgess who first alerted my internet world to H is for Hawk and I preordered, thinking it might be something I’d miss when it came out here — to my surprise and pleasure, I’m now seeing it all around with enthusiasm for that authentic voice that sticks with you. I’m glad to know you read it and thought of me!

      • I feel like I’ve been posting about Helen’s book every few months since before it came out — I’m so glad you found it! Helen’s also a poet and has a sensibility and way with language that I thought would connect with you.

        There’s another book I think you might also enjoy (not sure if you know of it) called To the River by Olivia Laing. She’s part of the Cambridge, UK crew, and she writes in a way that feels like collage. The book is about Virginia Woolf and Olivia’s own journey along the Ouse River. Another lovely, sharp, insightful, and empathetic writer who’s a master of sentences.

        • Oh, maybe I did first hear about it via you — sorry I felt blurry re the source, and thank you! And also thanks SO much for this To the River recommendation. It sounds like it has so much that I love, with a paralleling of present and past, life and literature. Just ordered it!

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