fb-pixel Skip to main content

Sy Montgomery’s latest book delves into the wild world of hawks

Visits to a falconer’s farm in Deering, N.H., were part of the author’s research

A red tailed hawkTianne Strombeck

In her decades of globe-trotting to encounter wild animals, Sy Montgomery has waited, caged underwater, to see a great white shark. She’s been chased by a silverback gorilla. She overcame dengue fever in Borneo and hypothermia in Papua New Guinea, and she was held at gunpoint twice.

The New Hampshire naturalist — author of some 34 books about animals — has been compared, not inaccurately, to Indiana Jones.

In her latest, “The Hawk’s Way: Encounters with Fierce Beauty,” she takes on a species right near her New Hampshire home.

Like her 2015 National Book Award finalist, “The Soul of an Octopus,” ostensibly about her relationship with octopi at Boston’s New England Aquarium, “Hawk” is a mix of first-hand accounts and research. Much of the tale here centers on visits to the late falconer Nancy Cowan’s farm in Deering, N.H., in 2005.


You might call this one Indiana Jones in Jurassic Park. Raptors are, after all, “living dinosaurs,” as Montgomery writes. Their forebears are theropods, which include the velociraptor and tyrannosaurus rex.

“Dinosaurs did not become extinct,” Montgomery tells me in a recent phone interview from her Hancock, N.H., home. “They just turned into birds.”

Sy Montgomery's new book offers a fascinating look at hawkshandout

“Hawk,” currently no. 10 on the New England Indie Bestseller List, features pages of photographs by Tianne Strombeck. You can catch Montgomery in a virtual presentation about the book via Smithsonian Associates on June 30.

Q. So why hawks?

A. When my husband heard [in 2005] an advertisement for the New Hampshire School of Falconry, he said, “You must call this lady and take some falconry lessons.” I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to see a bird like that close-up?”

Q. And what did the hawks teach you?

A. The transformative value of loving someone without expecting them to love you back. That frees you as if you have grown wings. So many relationships are transactional. Getting to know hawks allows you to have another kind of love — an extremely pure, wild love that opens up your soul.


Q. You make clear in the book that falconry is dangerous. What hooked you?

A. Being so close to pure wildness. I wasn’t afraid. It was worth the risk to be so close to these birds. Any bird you’re hunting with has the option to fly away.

Author Sy Montgomery with a Harris's hawkTianne Strombeck

Q. I was fascinated by what you wrote about their vision, that birds can see colors we’ve never dreamed of.

A. Birds have more kinds of color receptors — more receptors of every kind — in their eyes. When you think of it, your eyes really are parts of your brain that protrude through two holes in your skull. We’re all in the same world, but they’re experiencing this world in a richer way. They can see incredible detail.

Q. You’ve done so many incredible things in the wild. Where do hawks fall in terms of scary animal encounters?

A. I’m not afraid of animals, period — I’m afraid of going to a cocktail party. I’ve cage-dived with great white sharks, and when I saw it swimming towards me, I felt this profound sense of relief. Because I was afraid that I wouldn’t see a great white after I’d flown to Guadalupe Island. He was like a knight in white satin.

Q. How many countries have you visited for animal encounters?


A. I’ve never counted, but I’ve been to all the continents. Probably the most exotic place is Papua New Guinea. I went for a book on tree-kangaroos. We went into the cloud forest. It’s like going to Eden if Eden had leeches that get in your eye. Other than the leeches it really is like being in heaven. The animals are like toys invented by someone on acid — bizarre, fluffy, adorable creatures with giant eyes.

I don’t know if I could do it now at 64. When I went, I got altitude sickness and hypothermia. At one point, I wandered off into the forest. I’m pretty sure I would be dead if the photographer didn’t notice I was gone and set out to find me.

Q. Any other moments where you almost died?

A. I’ve been in areas where kidnappers frequently go for Westerners. I’ve twice had a gun held to my head. Both times I wasn’t frightened — I was irritated. One time, I was certain that the person wouldn’t pull the trigger; the other time I was doing my first book and I was going to be damned if someone killed me first.

I was in Rwanda and this person was sent to escort me to the mountain gorillas. He wanted my money and I wouldn’t give it to him.

Q. You’re a prolific writer — I counted more than 20 books you’ve written for children. What sparked your latest, “The Seagull and the Sea Captain,” based in Gloucester?


A. A friend forwarded me a Boston Globe article about a seagull that had a friendship with this schooner captain. I said, Oh, my God, that would be a great little children’s book.

For tickets to the virtual Smithsonian event, visit https://smithsonianassociates.org/ticketing/streaming/

Interview was edited and condensed.

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.