© Kate Hazell

Hawks: nature’s feathered killing machines

Is it not thrilling to know that the psychopaths of the natural world fly above us, but never spare us a thought?
November 4, 2021

I’ve written in these pages before about man’s omnivorous nature. Then, I was defending my taste for meat—my intuition that eating flesh at semi-regular intervals satisfied some essential part of my nature, nutritionally and otherwise. But many humans get by perfectly well on vegan diets with a bit of planning; ultimately, for most of us, eating meat or not is a lifestyle choice.

That could never be the case for the class of animals known as “obligate carnivores.” Cats, mink, salmon and birds of prey fall into this category: they must have meat to live. They’ve lost the ability to make certain amino acids and vitamins for themselves. Without meat, the bodies turns on itself and starts to break down their own muscles and organs.

This physical divergence surely also manifests psychologically: the priorities of a hawk, for example, dependent on prey to live, must be different to yours or mine. Everything is interpreted by the hawk’s mind in terms of hunting and competition; to understand the world as a hawk is to be utterly attuned to movements that might indicate the presence of prey animals. Hawks have incredible eyesight, at least five times better than our own—like having a telephoto lens strapped to your face, allowing you to zoom in and out on details in the far distance. (A golden eagle’s sight is even better, allowing them to spot a rabbit on moorland from more than two miles away.) 

Hawks also have an extra set of colour receptors, meaning that they can see ultraviolet light—they get to experience a colour we’ll never know because it is helpful for detecting the urine trails of small mammals. They might not know the exact location of a mouse, vole or rabbit, but they can sense that it is somewhere close at hand thanks to these helpful tracks left in its wake. They have almost spooky capabilities of head stabilisation, which allow them to keep their gaze fixed on a point in space even as their body is buffeted around on the wind. They are, in other words, the Steadicams of nature.

The most exhilaratingly accurate evocation of the predator mindset I’ve read is in Helen Macdonald’s 2014 memoir H is for Hawk, about the year she spent training a goshawk in the wake of her father’s death. In it, she spends so much time with the bird that she feels herself absorbing hawk-like qualities: “I’d turned myself into a hawk… I was nervous, highly strung, paranoid, prone to fits of terror and rage; I ate greedily or didn’t eat at all… I had assumed—in my imagination—her alien perspective, her inhuman understanding of the world.”

Mabel is a magnificent bird: photos show her crouched on Macdonald’s gloved hand, ghostly pale with dark barred plumage, focused on the middle distance—“thirty ounces of death in a feathered jacket.” Though Macdonald spends every waking hour with Mabel for months, they do not develop an emotional bond in the way you might become attached to a pet dog, and it to you. Everything about the hawk, writes Macdonald, “is tuned and turned to hunt and kill.” She looks at the world through uninterested eyes until something signals the possible presence of prey—rustling leaves, say—at which point her attention tightens to a fine point, and she becomes a “high-tension wire-strung hawk of murderous anticipation.”

There is no empathy in the hawk’s world—it will catch a rabbit or mouse or small bird and tear into it immediately, with no interest as to whether it is dead yet or not. Its predatory behaviour is instinctive. Macdonald learns that high pitched squeals of all kinds—the sound of a baby rabbit, predictably, but also unoiled hinges, car brakes, a baby crying—elicit an immediate response from Mabel: “Straight away the hawk drove her talons into my glove, ratcheting up the pressure in savage, stabbing spasms. Kill… Kill kill kill.”

After many months in the company of only Mabel, Macdonald found herself unnerved by the experience. It took her “to the very edge of being a human,” she writes. “Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn’t human at all.” If hawks were human, we would call them psychopaths. But is it not thrilling to know that we live alongside psychopaths like these—that they fly above us, and never spare us
a thought?