H Is for Hawk on Nature

Elisa Lichtenbaum | October 27, 2017

After the unexpected death of her photojournalist father, British poet, historian, and naturalist Helen Macdonald overcame her grief by training Mabel, an adult goshawk — one of nature’s most notoriously wild and free-spirited birds of prey. A professional falconer with a lifelong obsession with birds, she found healing in this experience, which became the basis for her 2014 international best-selling memoir H Is for Hawk.

Now, 10 years after she trained Mabel — who died just before the author finished writing her book — Macdonald is ready to take on the challenge again, prompted by watching how a pair of wild goshawks reared their chicks in an English forest. Her remarkable story is the subject of H Is for Hawk: A New Chapter, premiering Wednesday, November 1 at 8pm on Nature.

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The first-person account follows Macdonald’s emotional and intimate journey as she adopts a young goshawk named Lupin and attempts to raise it as her own. It charts her progress: from watching goshawks during breeding season on monitors at the aviary where Lupin was born; taking the first steps to tame the hawk by gaining her trust; patiently waiting for the bird to come to her hand to retrieve food; and training Lupin to fly to her gloved hand across a field while still secured by a long line of braided cotton.

We see Macdonald climb a tree 50 feet high for a literal bird’s-eye view of the wild goshawk nest in the forest. “I never thought I’d see a goshawk nest at this level,” she says excitedly, peering through binoculars. “I feel like a bit of a spy.”

We also see Macdonald reflecting on her childhood obsession with birds, illustrated with home video and photographs, as she recalls her first falconry course at age 13 and working at a bird of prey center where she was given her first kestrel that slept in her bedroom bookcase at night.

She distinguishes between her solitary withdrawal from the world, depicted in H Is for Hawk, and her desire now to share her new training experience with others.

“Contact with animals is a good thing,” she said in a Washington Post interview. “They teach you what it is to be human.”

H Is For Hawk: A New Chapter on Nature premieres Wednesday, November 1 at 8pm and will be available to stream for four weeks beginning November 2 on THIRTEEN.org, on the Nature website, and via THIRTEEN Explore OTT apps. Visit the Nature website to stream additional episodes, enjoy filmmaker interviews, teacher’s guides, and more. Join the conversation and connect with other Nature> fans on Facebook (facebook.com/PBSNature) and Twitter (@PBSNature).