By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 14/12/2016

You may have already devoured H is for Hawk, but Helen Macdonald’s precursor is worth a visit (or revisit) for its marvellous story telling of the cultural and natural history of falcons.

falcon-bookBetter known for her acclaimed H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s precursor book Falcon has been re-released on its tenth anniversary. I’ve yet to read H is for Hawk, but I understand it is more of a personal narrative compared to Falcon, which is a combination of a natural and cultural history of the titular bird.

This all began with a PhD thesis, which Macdonald never completed. Instead, it became Falcon. Plenty of PhD students like to joke that they’ll have written a book by the end of their thesis, but to be fair – most of us who aren’t in the humanities wouldn’t have wound up with a good book.

But that’s what Macdonald wrote. Falcon is an excellent example of natural history writing, and a text many aspiring writers could take heed of. It’s easy to let the vanity of writing get away with you, winding up with bloated and excessive prose. The hard part of writing is deleting, and Macdonald has managed to keep Falcon to a respectable and light 200 pages. For a topic she clearly cares so deeply about, it’s quite remarkable and makes for an easy, quick and enjoyable read.

Macdonald traces the scientific and natural history of birds of prey, narrowing down to her target: the genus Falco within the family Falconidae. Our own species – Falco novaeseelandiae (pictured above) – features briefly, with its short wings and long tail suited for the “aberrant” behaviour of sweeping through tight forest for its prey.

But the focus of the book revolves tightly around the cultural history of the birds, meaning we mostly stay in Europe, the middle East and the United States. Without getting too bogged down in details, Macdonald leaves her readers with a decent overview of the history of falconry around the world along with the myriad cultures and customs that evolved alongside.

Because of their tight relationship with humans, raptors became a touchstone of the environmental movement and conservation efforts when in the 1960s and 70s it became evident the birds were being harmed by pesticides, especially the infamous DDT. Macdonald gives a compelling overview of the conservation threats of raptors and the leaps that have been made in the decades since their decline first became apparent.

I felt it was crucial such a book was written by a woman, with the heavily gendered overtones implicit in falconry. The birds are all “she”, akin to the machismo around planes, trains and automobiles. Particularly when you add the – quite frankly bizarre – relationship between falcons and warfare. There’s so much lumped on the shoulders of these birds; the way that they’ve been saddled with humanity’s own hopes and dreams – courage, bravery, huntsmanship, flight… Macdonald was able to consider these at arm’s length, which I appreciated.

Kea birdsOne point I came away with very strongly was the similarities and lessons with some of our own native birds. Kea, in particular, are caught in a place where there is plenty of conflict with humans. They’ve been hunted and poisoned and persecuted for their natural behaviours, much in the way for some time raptors were persecuted for – among other things – killing pigeons.

“Conservation is riven by conflicts arising because animals possess different values for different cultures. Are falcons paradigms of wildness and freedom? Vermin? Sacred objects? A comercially valuable wildlife resource? Or untoucheable and charismatic icons of threatened nature?” [p46]

It’s something we’re still battling with today, how to protect a bird like kea which by its very nature hangs around in places, doing things that make it unsafe. With Falcon ending with a chapter on “urban falcons” and their integration into city life, it felt like a suitable coda on a group of birds that have a cultural history so tightly intertwined with ours. We can make room for nature in our modern lives and we certainly benefit when we do.

Falcon, Helen Macdonald
Reaktion Books, RRP $24.99