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The Goshawk: Background information when reading H Is for Hawk

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H Is for Hawk

by Helen Macdonald

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald X
H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2015, 288 pages

    Paperback:
    Mar 2016, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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The Goshawk

This article relates to H Is for Hawk

Print Review

In T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone (the first book in The Once and Future King series), young Arthur is transformed by his tutor, the wizard Merlyn, into a small falcon known as the merlin. In the short chapter focusing on Arthur's adventures among the raptors, he is both terrified and fascinated by the half-mad Colonel Cully, a bloodthirsty, raving goshawk. This scene, as fantastical as it might be, nevertheless illuminates some of the conventional wisdom surrounding goshawks. Macdonald quotes one falconry textbook that characterizes goshawks as developing "symptoms of passing madness." Large, bloodthirsty, impossible to understand or relate to, goshawks are mysterious creatures in Macdonald's book — and even more so in White's.

The Goshawk The name "goshawk" comes from the Old English words for "goose" and "hawk." It is pronounced as two separate syllables (gos-hawk), without a "sh" sound in between. The northern goshawk is the largest North American accipiter (the family of hawks that also includes sparrowhawks). It is 20-24 inches long, with a wingspan of nearly 4 feet. Its habitat includes woodlands throughout northern North America, Europe, and Asia, and its diet comprises large birds, squirrels, and rabbits. Behaviorally, goshawks are known for fiercely defending their large nests and for persistently tracking their prey, including by chasing on foot. Unlike red-tailed hawks and other more visible and urbanized species, goshawks are considered more secretive and are rarely seen by humans.

In North America, humans are most likely to see goshawks when the bird's usual prey in the northern boreal forests — the ruffed grouse and snowshoe hare — dip to below-normal levels, causing the goshawks to expand their hunting range farther south. Far from being simply mad, though, goshawks are fierce, crafty hunters and elegant to behold — perhaps the reason why Attila the Hun chose the goshawk as the emblem on his helmet.

Picture of goshawk from DespositPhotos

Filed under Nature and the Environment

Article by Norah Piehl

This "beyond the book article" relates to H Is for Hawk. It originally ran in March 2015 and has been updated for the March 2016 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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