Photo by Brian the baritone.
Quite often I’ll stop dead in the middle of a street, or a path, or a field, and say: Sparrowhawk.
And then I’ll look about, and often as not, raise a finger to the air and say, ‘there’. It’s not much of a trick, though people are sometimes amazed (and usually embarrassed: their worst suspicions about me confirmed). It's really not hard at all. All you need to do is learn that high-frequency seeping alarm call of a bird that's seen a hawk. And look about for the hawk that's brought the fear.
And it’s easy to tell a sparrowhawk in flight. Because sparrowhawks are too light for the air they move through. They catch my eye partly because they're the wrong density for the world. Too light. Watch a sparrowhawk clipping overhead and a gust of wind should by rights blow it over, overwhelm it. But sparrowhawks cut through wind, powered as they apparently are by will and mathematics, existing in a Euclidian space of plots and lines of force, and strategic possibilities. Creatures of wire, balsa and doped tissue paper.
In full-on hunting mode, sparrowhawks are sickening sight. They're possessed. Beserk. While shaving one morning, a friend looked down from his bathroom window and saw a musket—a male sparrowhawk—speeding towards him at head-height, parallel to the back wall of his house. It came fast, from the right, hunting. Its path was blocked by his kitchen extension. Did the hawk fly around the roof? No. Did it slow down? Did it hell. It ran up the steep pitched tiles—half-flew, half scrambled—in an ugly, speedy clatter of wings and talons and then threw itself off the top back into flight.
I’ve watched sparrowhawks fly through hedgerows at top speed. Their range-finding, terrain-avoidance equipment is such that they can pour themselves through tiny holes, shrugging, drawing their wings tight to their sides for an instant, braking with a flowering of wings and huge, fanned tail and throwing themselves to one side to avoid a thorn or a snag of wire. All this at fifty or sixty miles an hour.
Flying sparrowhawks in falconry is a pain, not simply because they’re the most difficult of birds to keep, but because most flights seem to end with you standing in front of a thick blackthorn hedge, with its wicked spikes, and your hawk in the middle of it. You peer in, and in the dark you see one crazy yellow knitting needle at one angle, and one at another: your hawk’s legs. You see a shoulder. You see the shape of a wing, or an eye. A bright, expressionless button with a pupil. The curve of long toes around rough twigs. A crouching blackbird. What you feel is the absolute stillness that is two birds in a bush working out what move could possibly bring either of them advantage.
They’re hard. You must measure their rations with extraordinary exactitude. You must pamper and feed and measure and weigh and take as much care as if you were nursing an invalid, instead of a small, fiery psychopath. Underweight sparrowhawks die. Overweight sparrowhawks fly away. The last sparrowhawk I trained was a haggard female; haggard meaning adult. She’d been in an aviary all her life. Her underparts were soft salmony bars, her feet crayola-yellow, and the thin falcon glove had soon to be changed for a double-thickness gauntlet. While their feet are spider-thin, their power is terrible. One clutch, one convulsive clutch of a foot — hawk feet have a ratchet-mechanism, whereby the tendons are ridged and catch in their tendon sheath, locking them shut — and eight needles would be driven through the buckskin into my hand. She taught me that spars are reptilian, that they glitter and articulate like insects: their brains are smaller than their eyes, but they are not stupid.
For many years a friend flew a hand-reared female sparrowhawk. Handling her was like sticking a bare arm into a dogfight. She’d leave bloody punctures in his hands before we’d even got to the car. He was zen enough to understand there was nothing personal in this; personal means nothing to a sparhawk. He swore without rancour, unhooked a talon or two, and continued changing her jesses while she puffed her barred chest into a huge meringue of aggression, hackles raised, eyes glowing in a static agony of misdirected sparrowhawk kill instinct. She was so full of it that some part of me expected her head to explode, cartoon style.
This was a creature with a stimulus-response loop so wired that she’d react to things before we’d even seen or imagined them; non-stop in the unceasing fast-forward amphetamine rush that’s a sprawk’s life. As we drove around the downs — snow gradually accumulating — I heard of a flight she made a few weeks before. At the end of a blank day, she'd sped from the fist on a ground-hugging flight down the right hand side of a long shelter-belt. Flickering grey along the furrows, everyone in the car squinting into the misty December light, trying to see what she was chasing. And then she changed gear; started climbing; a sharp, hard climb that ended, suddenly, in a spinning, lazy circle fifty or sixty feet up above the wood. What was she doing? All the falconers thought she’d lost whatever she'd been chasing, but it turned out that wasn't it at all. As she sailed, the centre of each circle plotted leftward, until the very edge of one circle eclipsed the left-hand edge of the wood. And then she was gone. They found her killing a woodpigeon on the ground in a burst of white feathers. She’d seen a group of woodpigeons feeding just there. So she’d gone low down the right side of the trees, out of their sight. Rising up over the top of them, she'd tipped over, dived, and grabbed one just as they clattered into flight beneath her.
Wild sparrowhawks kill birds in gardens. My garden. Out on the flagstones, occasionally, I find tiny fragments: a little, insect-like passerine leg, with a foot clenched tight where the sinews have pulled it; or—even more gruesomely—a disarticulated beak, a house-sparrow beak top, or bottom, a little conical bead of blushed gunmetal, slightly translucent, with a few faint maxillar feathers adhering to it.
Many people hate sparrowhawks for this. Some get upset. Some get upset and angry. Strange groups declare war on sparrowhawks, consider them the cause of songbird decline. I think this is nonsense. Science thinks this is nonsense. What drives sparrowhawk-haters is moral outrage. A decade of tv makeover programmes has transformed old-style lawns and vegetable plots bustling with sparrows into value-added outdoor rooms with decking, turkey-heaters and designer tulips. I tried hard to make that a neutral statement, but I just couldn’t do it. I like messy gardens. Birds do too.
The moral landscape of your house extends outside to such spaces. So when a sparrowhawk tussles with a blackbird on your decking you’re pretty much witnessing murder on the living room floor. And oh, the pang when you realise that your bird table is why sparrowhawks visit your garden dawn and dusk; you have created a sparrowhawk table! An accessory to murder!
I mean it seriously when I say sparrowhawks are a difficulty. They are for me, anyway: they pull my moral assumptions through hoops. Painfully. It's all very well to know that nature is red and tooth and claw. It’s not difficult to feel that human morals have no place in nature. But even so, it’s not pleasant to witness a sparrowhawk eating a shrieking, live starling, piece by piece, on your patio floor. It is horrible. And it is salutory. Partly because moral conflicts are interesting. And partly for other reasons.
Sparrowhawks are important to me, because it is too easy for me to do the Keats thing: pour myself into birds as a way of disappearing from me-ness. I identify with birds too easily. I am embarrassed to admit that I’m way too ready to get lost in the enjoyment of a dust-bathing sparrow, take joy in the sun on my fluffy flanks, presume I know exactly what the blackbird’s thinking as it chinks in alarm in a hedge. But sparrowhawks are incomprehensible. I can’t pour myself into a sparrowhawk, not even for a moment. They’re the wrong density for the world I live in, and their mores are unaccountable.
This is important, for complicated reasons. When I was small, I thought everyone was like me. This is a commonplace observation. But just as it’s easy to tell yourself that nature is red in tooth and claw and still be upset by a murdering spar, it’s easy to tell yourself that people are different from each other, and still be upset when they’re not. People are often very different indeed. Thank God. But expecting other people’s motives and loves and values to be exactly like your own is a mistake that leads to heartache, bafflement and sometimes grief, when things go awry.
Yes, there are many animals I don’t understand. I don’t understand jellyfish, or water bears, or flies. But I absolutely don’t understand spar-hawks, and that’s why they are such a magnet for my curious heart.
Etymology, as usual, unfolds to illumine the story. The scientific name of sparrowhawk is Accipiter nisus.
Accipiter is, at root, to understand, itself derived from the word for “grasp”. Knowledge as a convulsive foot around feathers is a great image, and one I shall hold to.
Nisus, however, means a conative state or condition: striving, inclination. Merriam Webster faffs about and ends by defining it as "a tendency or principle of reality exhibited in the emergence of higher levels of existence: life, mind, deity. Its most usual meaning is of physical or mental effort towards a goal."
Accipiter: to grasp, to understand.
Nisus: striving towards a goal.
The sparrowhawk then, dammit, actually does mean striving towards knowledge, understanding.
I like that.