H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

I really wanted to love H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which  won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, as well as the 2014 Costa Book of the Year but I found it difficult to read and draining, despite some richly descriptive narrative.  It’s really three  books in one – one about herself, her childhood and her intense grief at the sudden death of her father, one about training a goshawk and another about T H White and his book, The Goshawk in which he describes his own struggle to train a hawk.

When her father died she bought Mabel, a ten week old goshawk and became obsessed with training her. It is the training that made this book so difficult for me to read. I am not comfortable with keeping wild creatures in captivity and in my naivete I hadn’t realised just what training a hawk entailed. Even though Helen Macdonald tells her friend’s husband that it had not been a battle training Mabel because ‘she’s a freakishly calm hawk‘, it came across to me that it had been a battle of wills, as she kept Mabel indoors in a darkened room, in a hood, on a perch or restrained on a leash for much of the time. It was a physical battle too that evoked rage, violence and frustration.

I found it difficult too because it is so personal as she exposed just how bereft she was, how she suffered the loss of her father and became depressed almost to the state of madness:

It was about this time that a kind of madness drifted in. Looking back, I think I was never truly mad. More mad north-north-west. I could tell a hawk from a handsaw always but sometimes it was striking to me how similar they were. I knew I wasn’t mad mad because I’d seen people in the grip of psychosis before, and that was madness as obvious as the taste of blood in the mouth. The kind of madness I had was different. It was quiet, and very, very dangerous. It was a madness designed to keep me sane. My mind struggled to build across the gap, make a new and inhabitable world. (location 219)

This a book unlike any other that I’ve read, about wildness, grief and mourning, and obsession, which made it heavy reading for me.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1875 KB
  • Print Length: 322 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0802123414
  • Publisher: Vintage Digital (31 July 2014)
  • Source: I bought it

Corvus: A Life With Birds by Esther Woolfson

Corvus by Esther Woolfson is a remarkable book about the birds she has has had living with her; birds that were found out of the nest that would not have survived if she had not taken them in.

‘Corvus’ is a genus of birds including jackdaws, ravens, crows, magpies and rooks. The specific birds Esther Woolfson has looked after are a rook, called Chicken (short for Madame Chickieboumskaya), a young crow, a cockatiel, a magpie, two small parrots and two canaries. But it all started with doves, which live in an outhouse, converted from a coal store into a dove-house, or as they live in Aberdeen in Scotland, a doo’cot.

Although the book is mainly about the rook, Chicken, Esther Woolfson also writes in detail about natural history, the desirability or otherwise of keeping birds, and a plethora of facts about birds, their physiology, mechanics of flight, bird song and so on. As with all good non-fiction Corvus has an extensive index, which gives a good idea of the scope of the book. Here are just a few entries for example under ‘birds’ the entries include – aggression in, evolution of, navigation, in poetry, speeds of, vision, wildness of, wings’

It’s part memoir and part nature study and for me it works best when Esther Woolfson is writing about Chicken and the other birds living in her house, how she fed them, cleared up after them, and tried to understand them. Although at times I had that feeling I get when I visit a zoo – these are wild birds kept captivity and I’m not very comfortable with that, I am reassured by Esther Woolfson’s clarification that reintroducing these birds to the wild was unlikely to be successful and indeed they lived longer than they would have done in the wild. Though Chicken and Spike (and the other birds) live domesticated lives they are still wild birds:

I realise that if ‘wild’ was once the word for Chicken, it still is, for nothing in her or about her contains any of the suggestions hinted at by the word ‘tame’. Chicken, Spike, Max, all the birds I have known over the years, live or lived their lives as they did by necessity or otherwise, but were and are not ‘tame’. They are afraid of the things they always were, of which their fellow corvids are, judiciously, sensibly; of some people, of hands and perceived danger, of cats and hawks, of things they do not know and things of which I too am afraid. ‘Not tamed or diminished’. (pages 115-6)

At times, where Esther Woolfson goes into intricate detail, for example in the chapter on ‘Of Flight and Feathers‘ I soon became completely out of my depth, lost in the infinity of specialised wing shapes and the complexities of the structure of feathers. But that is a minor criticism, far out weighed by her acute observations of the birds, her joy in their lives and her grief at their deaths – her description of Spike’s unexpected death and her reaction is so moving:

I wept the night he died. Sitting in bed, filled with the utter loss of his person, I felt diminished, bereft. I talked about him, but not very much, in the main to members of the family, who felt the same, but to few others.

It’s the only way, this compact and measured grief, for those of us who are aware that there has to be proportion in loss and mourning; we laugh at ourselves for our grief, trying to deal with this feeling that is different in quality, incomparable with the loss of a human being.

We felt – we knew – that something immeasurable had gone. (page 209)

Anyone who has lived through the death of a loved animal can recognise that sense of loss.

Corvus is a beautiful book and I have learned so much by reading it. I must also mention the beautiful black and white illustrations by Helen Macdonald – I think this is the Helen Macdonald who was awarded the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for H is For Hawk.

Esther Woolfson was brought up in Glasgow and studied Chinese at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Edinburgh University. Her acclaimed short stories have appeared in many anthologies and have been read on Radio 4. She has won prizes for both her stories and her nature writing and has been the recipient of a Scottish Arts Council Travel Grant and a Writer’s Bursary. Her latest book, Field Notes from a Hidden City (Granta Books), was shortlisted for the 2014 Thwaites Wainwright Prize for Nature and Travel Writing. She lives in Aberdeen. For more information see her website.

Saturday Snapshots

A few weeks ago I posted about the Attack of the Sparrows on the House Martins’ nest. A couple of weeks later the house martins all left and flew off to spend the winter in Africa. Each year they use our house as a building site for their nests. They are beautiful little birds and I love to see them flying high in the sky above our house and the chicks as they poke their heads out of the nest waiting to be fed.

It’s illegal to remove their nests whilst they are building or using them as they’re protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and you could get fined up to £5,000 and/or a 6 month prison sentence for every bird, egg or nest destroyed. And as they’re on the Amber list (because of recent decline in numbers) the RSPB is encouraging people to help them nest.

Well, they didn’t need any encouragement from us and built four nests in the eaves of our house. One was above the living room window, so you can imagine the mess their droppings made on the window and window sill. But now they’ve gone David has taken the nests down and cleaned up the mess they left behind, so he could sadolin the soffits and fascias. The nests came away mainly in one piece. My photos show how they’re constructed – mainly of mud and sticks formed into a cup shape.

House Martins nest P1010917

House Martins nest P1010918For more Saturday Snapshots see Melinda’s blog A West Metro Mommy Reads.

The Attack of the Sparrows

For a few days now little white feathers have been appearing on the lawn at the front of the house – and in the back garden too. We were a bit worried that our cat had been catching birds, but mice are her preferred option. We were wrong – it wasn’t down to Heidi.

This year our house has been home to four lots of house martins, with four families in four nests, one at each of the gable ends and a fourth on the front wall of the house built over the cover of an extractor. These birds have been dazzling us with their spectacular aerobatics as they’ve been swooping and sailing above us high in the sky most of the summer, catching the insects that love to bite me. Needless to say I love house martins.

I don’t know how many broods they’ve had but there are still fledglings in the nest at the front. According the RSPB they can have up to three broods and I suspect each of the families have done that this year. They’ve made quite a mess on the walls and window sills with their droppings.

The puzzle of the feathers on the lawn was solved the other day when we saw two sparrows attacking the nest, pulling out feathers and poking around inside the nest – and the fledglings were still inside. I never knew what aggressive little beggars house sparrows are! The RSPB site tells that they often damage house martins’ nests and even attack adults, eggs and young birds. This attack was rebuffed by the house martins and the sparrows flew off – but there are more white feathers around this morning, the war continues.

Sparrow on HM nest

Nice Weather – for Ducks!

It’s pretty wild and windy here this morning with sleet, which is almost snow. Not the weather to go out in, but these visitors to our garden seem to like it.

They went further upstream – below you can see the male’s head bobbing above the bank:

Then they tried a little walk. The photo below shows the female in the sleet.

 Thanks to D, who took these photos.

C is for Chaffinch

There are countless numbers of chaffinches in our garden. It’s the second commonest breeding bird in the UK, so perhaps it’s not surprising that there are so many around. They eat insects and seeds, but they prefer to eat the seeds that have fallen to the ground rather than from the bird feeders.

We have put a tray of seeds on a garden table outside our kitchen patio doors and can watch them at quite close quarters as they come to eat the seeds. Whilst they crowd together on the ground they’re more cautious closer to the house and they only come one at a time to the table. David took these photos. (Click on the photos to enlarge them.)

I think this one is so lovely. It’s a female chaffinch that has just landed on the rail of the decking and the wind is ruffling her feathers.

In this next photo her feathers have settled down:

Then a male chaffinch arrived. He likes the sunflower seeds.

I love his colours.

An ABC Wednesday post for the letter C.

Saturday Snapshot

There was a loud bang the other day. I looked around the house but couldn’t find anything that had fallen down to explain the noise. Later I noticed that the front room window was looking rather dusty, and then I realised what the bang had been:

There are lots of wood pigeons and collared doves flying round our garden and it looks as though one had tried to fly through the window. It had certainly left an impression, probably seeing the reflection of trees in the window and thinking it could fly through. Fortunately there was no dead or injured bird anywhere to be seen!  We’d better get some stickers on the window!

See more Saturday Snapshots on Alyce’s blog At Home With Books.

Saturday Snapshot: The Birds Have Flown

I’ve posted a few photos and videos of the collared doves’ nest – first the empty nest, then the eggs were laid, the chicks hatched and now we have an empty nest again. On Thursday evening the second young collared dove left the nest and has not returned. I do feel a little sad – empty nest syndrome!

Empty Nest!

Here is a video showing the final moments as the young bird left the confines of the nest behind the satellite dish for the last time and flew off into the wide world beyond. It looks quite big in the video but in reality it is still very small.

To participate in Alyce’s Saturday Snapshot meme post a photo (new or old) that you (or a friend or family member) have taken, but make sure it’s not one that you found online.

Collared Doves – Update

The young collared doves have been growing rapidly this week. We’ve been watching as the parent birds take it in turn to sit on the nest and feed their young. Today, for the first time the young birds have been left on their own in the nest – there’s not much room for them, never mind an adult bird as well. I expect they’ll be leaving the nest soon.

Here is a short video showing the two chicks being fed:

Saturday Snapshot – Update on our Collared Doves

Last Saturday I posted photos of the nest the Collared Doves had built at the back of our satellite dish.

Earlier this week we had a sight of the two eggs in the collared doves’ nest –

Here is one of the parents sitting on the eggs –

and here is a short video we made of one of the doves settling down on the eggs –


We hoping to video the chicks as they hatch – it’s just like Springwatch here at the moment!

To participate in Alyce’s Saturday Snapshot meme post a photo (new or old) that you (or a friend or family member) have taken, but make sure it’s not one that you found online.

Saturday Snapshot – Collared Doves

We were away from home last week and on our return we noticed this pile of sticks behind the satellite dish on the back wall of the house.

We thought it was the beginnings of a nest and the birds had abandoned it – it’s just a pile of sticks. Then yesterday evening as we were sitting on the decking having a barbecue we noticed two collared doves on the roof and one flew down and settled on the nest.

This was the best photo I could get, but Dave’s camera can zoom in closer and this is his photo:

I’m very fond of collared doves, even if their coo – COO – coo call can get very repetitive, so I do hope we get some chicks. We had young collared doves in the garden last year but didn’t see where their nest was.

To participate in Alyce’s Saturday Snapshot meme post a photo (new or old) that you (or a friend or family member) have taken, but make sure it’s not one that you found online.

Sunday Scene – More Snow

We woke up this morning to yet more snow, as in most of Britain.

The birds were flocking to the feeders – which now need replenishing. Today the woodpecker stayed long enough for me to take some photos.

The tits are bolder and come up onto the decking outside the kitchen.

This one landed in the snow and nearly sank.

Lucy, who hasn’t ventured outside since the snow first came at the end of November, sits and watches the birds as they come near the window.

This is what she wished she could catch

Can You Identify This Bird?

The snow is still here, we’re getting a bit fed up with it, but it does make a pretty picture. Everything looks as though it’s covered in royal icing.

The field across the road is sparkling in the sun this morning – click on photo to see the sparkles:

D has been feeding the birds every day, topping up the feeders. We had lots of visitors, including robins, bluetits, great tits, greenfinches, goldfinches chaffinches, sparrows, wood pigeons and a woodpecker too.

We can identify most of the birds but this one has us puzzled. What is it?

It appeared on the decking where D had put a tray of birdseed and ventured very close to the patio doors. I tried several times to get a good photo and this is the best I could do.

Here it is enlarged:

We’ve checked in the RSPB Charts and our bird books – A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, the Reader’s Digest Field Guide to the Birds of Britain, and Collins Bird Guide, but I’m not sure if I can identify it. Is it a meadow pipit?

Just look at that stare?

Saturday Scene

It’s a little bit warmer today, the icicles hanging from the gutters are melting, and the sky is blue. This is the view of the back garden where the sun is shining.

The front garden all is in shade. The birds disappeared when I opened the door to take this photo, but the feeders are tremendously popular.

I had to crawl to the window in the front room to take this photo of a lesser spotted woodpecker on the bird feeder as the slightest movement and it flew away.

It’s difficult to see the woodpecker’s beautiful plumage because the tree is in the shade and the woodpecker refused to move round so I could take a photo of it’s lovely colours.

A Walk Along The River Till

The other day D and I went for a walk by the River Till. From where we parked the car the path ascends above the river along a tree-lined path. 

The remains of an old chapel, St Mary’s Chapel are just below the path – only the outline of the chapel and a cross can be seen.

D recorded the route on his iPhone – this extract below shows the position of the chapel.

The path gradually descends to the river side.


Then we spied a heron motionless on the opposite bank.

It saw us too and flew away. Then I spotted it in the river.

Again we were seen and it flew away. I just pointed the camera and hoped to capture it flying – you can just see it over the water

 and landing on the bank further upstream.

We continued our walk along the riverbank, meeting a group of cyclists struggling to ride on the stony surface (the route is Sustrans 68).

After a rest on this seat we turned round and walked back.

Just a Glimpse of the Orient

On Monday D and I went for a walk with a friend alongside the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal. It was a beautiful, sunny day and we enjoyed these views. This is the start of our walk.

The Wendover Arm was first constructed in 1797, but as sections of it leaked it was “de-watered”. From 1989 onwards it has been restored and this is what it looks like today.

Kingfishers can be seen along the canal, but we didn’t see any on Monday. There were lots of other birds though, ducks, moorhens, coots and dabchicks (otherwise known as little grebes), busy diving and collecting nest material.

The ducks were in fine form, taking off a high speed and then landing with legs flailing before splash-down.

Further along the canal we saw a swan sitting on a large nest over on the other side.


The canal opens up into an area known as the Wides, with areas of grass and shrubs with a tiny island on the far side. Trees have invaded what was once open water and without management the canal would disappear in a few years.

Then came a surprise – a pair of mandarin ducks. I’d never seen these before; they looked very different from the other birds on the canal, but just so beautiful. The male has very distinctive chestnut brown and orange fan wings sticking up above his body, whilst the female is a duller brown with white spots. They were swimming together in and out of the trees. When I came home I looked them up in our bird books. Originally from China these ducks like streams and overgrown lakesides in broad leaved woodland and they nest in tree cavities. The canal is the perfect place for them.