In this extract from the Samuel Johnson and Costa Prize winningH is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald introduces the art of ringing wild goshawks.
At dusk the Gloucestershire forest is dim and vaulted green. It feels like an underwater cathedral. We’ve walked deep into the trees. Now we’re standing by a thicket of light-deprived hazel. There’s the nest, the ringer says, pointing at a table-sized shadow of sticks high in a larch above us. Right, says Jimmie. Wiry and bearded, with a base-jumper’s adrenaline-wired demeanour, he pulls on a helmet, hauls out coils of rope and harnesses and clips. Then he loops the rope around the trunk and begins to climb. Distant summer thunder. A shadow tears itself from the trees: a zoescope silhouette of a female goshawk, flickering fast through the white gaps between the branches. Kew-kew-kew-kew she calls. I know, I whisper. We’re tense. We must work as fast as possible so the hawks can settle after we’re gone. Wild goshawks are breeding again in Britain after over a century of extinction and this forest is one of their strongholds. Fitting their chicks with British Trust for Ornithology numbered aluminium rings helps us study their population status. And that is why we are here.
Jimmie has reached the nest. He waves. And soon a huge yellow bag is descending on a rope, three goshawk chicks inside. The ringer prepares himself, shakes out tools from a cotton bag onto the forest floor. A dog-eared notebook, pliers, shiny metal rings, calipers. He draws a chick from the bag, measures and weighs it, closes a ring around one leg. Then he hands it to me while he attends to another. Now I have a baby hawk in my hands. A light, fierce bundle of dense cotton wool and spiny new feathers. Its huge, taloned feet are too weak to grip. It’s very precious, very young, and very ancient. A miraculous tiny dinosaur. It doesn’t blink. Its eyes are stormcloud blue. There’s another burst of thunder: rain patters gently through the darkening canopy.
Ringing gives us scientific data to help preserve birds like these. But there’s more to this than science. As he works, the ringer’s face shines with care and love for these birds; like me, he feels a huge sense of privilege in handling Britain’s wildest and most elusive bird of prey. Five minutes later the chicks are all back in the nest, their mother has returned, and we are walking back to the car in the rain. Those chicks will probably never be held by human hands again. Might not even be seen again. But for a few minutes we’ve been allowed to touch the lives of creatures far wilder than ourselves, and none of us will ever forget it.
This piece was first featured on summerofpenguin.com, a month-long celebration of stories and ideas on the London Underground’s WIFI network in partnership with TFL and Virgin Media. So if you happen to be travelling by Tube this summer, be sure to read a story on us.