Raptor: A Journey Through Birds

By James Macdonald Lockhart

University of Chicago Press, 2017; 376 pages; $29.00

It took two months for William MacGillivray to walk from Aberdeen to London in the autumn of 1819, collecting birds and plants along the way. His hike through mountains, heath, and farmsteads, culminating in a visit to the ornithological collections of the British Museum, was a coming-of-age pilgrimage for a young man who author James Lockhart regards as one of Britain’s finest field biologists. MacGillivray became a close collaborator of John James Audubon, and wrote a 5-volume History of British Birds that is distinguished by its perceptive and systematic descriptions of avian behavior and anatomy.

MacGillivray’s 1819 journal provides a rough framework for Lockhart’s own ambles around England two centuries later, searching for glimpses of each of the 15 birds of prey (excluding owls) that breed in the British Isles. But only a framework: Lockhart begins far to the north of Aberdeen, on the windswept Isle of Orkney, and crisscrosses southward across the landscape like a hawk on the hunt, touching down in a variety of avian habitats—the shores of the Moray Firth, the mountains of Wales, the fens of England in the east, the moors of Devon in the southwest. In each location, the author pitches his tent, takes out his glasses, and records his observations of a native raptor—hen harrier, honey buzzard, sea eagle, goshawk, peregrine falcon—along with notes on local geography, climate, and social history.

The result is the literary equivalent of an impressionistic painting—an assemblage of small bits that come together to form an unexpectedly satisfying whole. We see birds in a daily struggle to make a living, each in their own way—some gliding high above open land, some skimming the tops of grasses, others sitting motionless in trees, still others stealing the catchof other species. There are recurring historic themes, too—raptors that were hunted to near extinction and later decimated by pesticides, now returning to breed and flourish. Some come back to lands that once were small farms and later large sheepholds, slowly replaced by forest and parkland. Others find new habitats in the towers and steeples of an evergrowing urban population.

What makes this natural history so deeply affecting is not just Lockhart’s knowledge of English birds, but his evocative command of the English  language. The color of a marsh harrier’s plumage is described “like early morning fireplace ash before it is disturbed, the undercoat of grey, the black charcoal splints, the red fibrous imprint of the burnt-out logs.” The kite, Lockhart notes, “is the least linear of raptors, it spends its time unravelling imaginary balls of string in the air.” Later, watching a uniquely insectivorous predator, he tells us “the honey buzzard slips from its lookout branch like a shadow unhooking itself and follows in the wasp’s wake, tracking the wasp back to its nest.” Throughout this memorable journey, Lockhart’s prose soars and hits its mark like the raptors he so admires.