Sy Montgomery: Encounters with Fierce Beauty

By BEVERLY STODDART

On a day in May, I arrive at Fiddleheads Café in Hancock, New Hampshire, to meet with naturalist Sy Montgomery and talk about her book, The Hawk’s Way: Encounters with Fierce Beauty. There is a gentle rain falling, and we are meeting on the porch at the café in the village named for John Hancock, an original signer of the Declaration of Independence. We are joined for the chat by her constant companion border collie, Thurber.

Sy Montgomery is a naturalist and author of thirty-one books of non-fiction for adults and children. She has traveled the world to explore her love of animals, birds, reptiles, fish, and insects. A page on her website shows her ease with sitting by a cheetah, conversing with a kakapo, quietly communing with a giant pacific octopus, and smiling at a pinktoe tarantula as it crawls on her shoulder.

She is easy to be with. Her language is referenced with faith and a heartfelt commitment to helping wildlife she has read about as a child and grown to be an advocate for their betterment that coincides with our own.

Book cover.

We start by talking about recording the interview and how I will check my recorder to see that it is recording correctly. Sy understood this being a journalist and told the story of an orangutan stealing her tape of interviews. 

I had an orangutan eat my tape once. I couldn’t believe it when this was happening the orangutan was up in the tree. They hung around camp because they had been raised there. They would take your pills; they take your toothpaste. She grabbed my interviews, stuffed them in her mouth, and started chewing on them. And I was below asking please give them back. But it just amused the orangutan more.

What is Sy short for?

It’s Sy. It was going to be Saberhawk which would have been a great name. My father wanted to name me Saberhawk because that was the maneuver he was on post-World War II. I was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and he was away when I was born. He would have liked the hawk name. There was a hawk I met at Nancy’s house named Sabertaché, which is named after a military accouterment. 

Let’s start with the hummingbirds and your book, The Hummingbirds’ Gift. This is a story of resurrection. I wanted you to start by telling me about Zuni and Maya, these amazing little babies that you rescued. 

Never seen such pathetic vulnerable tiny, fragile beings as these two. They were so little you couldn’t tell they were hummingbirds because they hadn’t grown their long beaks. They could not fly. Their plumage wasn’t there. They just look like little bubbles. Your heart goes out to them. Nothing could be more helpless. And to think that you have a hand in taking these helpless little birds and restoring them to be the kings of the sky. It was a great opportunity for me. I am so grateful to Brenda [Sherburne] for letting me assist her. She is the rehabber. And she has rehabbed dozens and dozens of these little birds. Generally, she can save orphans. It’s much more difficult to save an injured adult. But you can do that too.

What is a naturalist?

It’s one of those words that you can call yourself a naturalist if you like nature. It’s somebody who studies nature, a scholar of nature. It sounds so official. But I am a scholar of nature. I’m not saying a great one. But I do study. It’s just about observation. I read everything, and I’d watch all the nature specials. What I love more than anything else is being outside in nature or anywhere with this guy. (Sy refers to Thurber, her border collie companion.) One of the great things about being with an animal of any kind is not only do you get to watch them, but you get the benefit of their senses that tip you off on other things that are going on that our relatively dull senses will miss. His hearing is so much better than mine. And even with one eye, he has pretty good eyesight, and his sense of smell is exquisite. He’s always pointing things out to me that I missed. 

You write that they are the lightest birds in the sky and, for their size, the fastest. How can that little bird be all of that?

It floors me. Their superpowers are because of their fragility. Because they are made of air, that’s how they do all these things. We often don’t realize that it’s not just the muscles in our arms and legs that let us run a marathon. But it’s our hearts. These guys are just full of lungs. They have enormous lungs. Plus, they have air sacs and there are nine air sacs. 

How can any bird migrate thousands of miles?

I think it’s amazing they’re not all killed. Absent are cars—absent global warming. Absent our cats, our pets, unfortunately, kill huge numbers of birds, including hummingbirds. Absent are pesticides. Just the wind, the cold, the distance, and the predators and fighting with each other, it’s a wonder any of them ever make it.

That’s one of those ordinary miracles that should just have us walking around gobsmacked that we get to be in this world with hummingbirds that do this. They are so beautiful just to look at them. All they would have to do is be beautiful, and we’d be awed. All they would have to do is be able to hover, and we’d be amazed. But they do all of this and this massive long-distance migration.

Why do they go to Mexico?

They go for food. They can’t handle the cold, or they get torpid. Torpor is a state where you’re so cold you cannot move. Even though you know you are supposed to move and will die if you don’t move, you just can’t. If you’ve ever had your hands in icy water for a very long time and tried to unclench them or come in from a snowstorm, you can’t move your feet. Imagine your whole body like that. They literally cannot move. So, they have to get away.

And they know when to go.

People have been studying how they know it’s time to go and how they know which way to go. They’ve done all kinds of wild experiments and have taken pigeons and stuffed things in their nostril to see how much smell might play a role. They put sunglasses on birds that prevent them from seeing polarized light. They’ve used giant magnets to change the magnetism that they are able to perceive.

And none of that has revealed the secrets?

They probably have multiple ways like we do. If you have to get somewhere, your GPS is not the only way. You print out the directions. And if you have to be there, maybe you follow somebody else that’s going there. They probably have backups, just like we do.

I love the style of the covers of your books.

Isn’t that lovely and the new one is like that too. I think there’s going to be a third but [the publisher] is not decided quite what it will be yet. I have a say in it. Simon & Schuster will tell me what they think. They will give me their opinion on what will sell. In almost all of my books, the idea for the book has been mine. This book and the subsequent one, the heart of the book, not the introduction, the book was published as Birdology several years ago.

It’s not like they’re going to tell me to research and write a whole new thing. I will have to do a new introduction and will have to do new art. This little series resurrects chapters from a previous book and gives them what I had hoped from the initial Birdology. Birdology did not have any color photos when it was first published. I was horrified. I was devastated it was printed on less than quality paper, and Birdology was not my chosen title. I fought it up to the very last minute, and even though my contract says you have to come to some mutually agreed-upon, they would not accept any of my other titles. The title I originally wanted was Birds Are Made of Air. They said that’s very poetic, but we want charming.

Birdology was the title for a sermon that I went to, and it was a nice title for the sermon. But I didn’t want it to be the title of the book. I loved Birds Are Made of Air.

Let’s move on to The Soul of an Octopus. Here’s what caught me immediately. “Here is an animal with venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old-fashioned pen. It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet it can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange. That’s a great description of this lovely creature. So why did you want to get involved with octopuses?

For a long time, I realized as a naturalist, I had written mostly about land vertebrates. I had written about at least one invertebrate. I had written about tarantulas. And I had written about dolphins, pink river dolphins. But until I wrote The Soul of an Octopus, I hadn’t written anything about the kind of animal that dominates the planet, and that is an invertebrate. Most animals are marine invertebrates. I had ignored them. In 2011, at that point, I had written over twenty-five books. I wanted to write about consciousness. If you talk about consciousness, say chimpanzees who are so closely related, we could even do blood transfusions. They’re very similar to us. If you talk about consciousness in any mammal, it’s not particularly jaw-dropping. But if you could talk about consciousness and show it exists in a marine invertebrate, that shows in a very visceral way that the world is alive and cognizant to the degree that most people don’t realize. It just kind of blasts open the complexity and the holiness. That’s why I wanted to meet an octopus. Here is someone so distantly related to us that our last common ancestor that we share was half a billion years ago. 

You wrote you wanted to meet the octopus. To you, this was a sentient being.

For a long time, human beings across cultures understood that animals could think and feel. But then I think Rene Descartes came along and screwed everything up with his idea of only human beings, I think, therefore, I am, and we were the only ones who thought. That’s ridiculous, of course. If you understand, evolution shows us that things arise for a reason, and consciousness can easily think of very good reasons that would enhance your survival. 

Of course, humans, too, have instincts. We do things not knowing why but we also think things through. We decide to pick this mate and not that mate. We decide to hunt this creature and not that creature. Octopuses and the kinds of choices they have to make every day are mind-boggling. Almost everything eats them. They have to watch out for everything. Even when they’re itty bitty, literally everything eats them. And their death is miserable, being torn limb from limb. But they also will eat almost everything they can. So, they have to figure out how do I escape from a shark and a seagull and a person and a moray eel and a really big crab and but how do I catch this fish, how do I open this clam, how do I evade the shark?

They will preemptively kill their enemies, not to eat them just to kill them just because you bother me, and I better get rid of you. You’re in my tank. This happened in an aquarium where people were a little nervous about adding an octopus to their tank because the tank had sharks in it. And they were afraid the shark would eat the octopus. All of the sharks started turning up dead. Not eaten, just dead. So, they used a game camera to see what was going on in the off-hours, and they found that the octopuses were preemptively drowning the sharks. They were like, I see you’re going to pose me a problem in the future, so they understand the future. The shark wasn’t attacking them, but I see you’re going to be a problem, and I’m going to eliminate you.

By drowning, not by squeezing.

They can hold them still. Most of the sharks have to be moving to breathe. So, all you have to do is hold them still. 

That is so interesting.

They were killed by the octopuses, and nobody suspected them at all.

You write, “to watch Octavia in peace, I rise at 5 a.m. and start driving.” I thought how cool it would be to be at the New England Aquarium when no one else is there.” Would you describe that for me?

It is so peaceful and lovely, I mean, and of course, I want people to enjoy our aquarium. But to have the place to yourself when all the animals are not reacting to crowds. So, you’re by yourself, and they’re peacefully going about their lives. It’s also nice to have an unobstructed view. That is super special to have that place to yourself. You know who else enjoys that is the cleaning crew. The cleaning crew were very good observers of these animals.

There’s one more thing; you had written, “I have bad news. Scott told me. “Kali is dead.” You write about life and death, and this is not the first one that we encounter that you have come to love and know, and now you then have to mourn them. How do you do it?

It’s horrible. She was young, and she had just moved to her new tank, and we thought her life was beginning, and then to have her cut short was horrible

And speaking of loss, in your book The Hawks Way, your dedication is to Nancy Cowan, saying, “In loving memory of Nancy Cowan, March 12, 1947-January 8, 2022, master falconer, wise in the way of the hawk.” In the color insert, there’s a picture of Nancy, and I look at her, and she’s powerful, and she knows where she’s going, and the beautiful bird she’s holding has that same look. It’s such a great photo.

That’s exactly why we wanted that photo. And Tia (Tianne Strombeck, Tianimal.com.), who took almost every picture in the book, is a friend of mine, and she has a home in Hancock and Texas. She specializes in photographing birds. She took all the pictures in the condor book. She took most of the pictures in the hummingbird book. And she also took most of the pictures in the octopus book. So, I love working with her. 

Would you talk about Nancy?

I hate that she died. I hate that she’s dead. Nancy understood these birds from decades of working with them, and she did not idolize them. She did not try to endow them with spiritual powers that she didn’t see them having. She had a very deep abiding respect for what they were. She was annoyed by people who tried to make them something they are not. So many people came to her at her New Hampshire School of Falconry looking for one thing or another from these birds, but what they truly offer you is so much. It’s insulting to want something from them that they don’t give you. They aren’t pets. They aren’t livestock. They aren’t even particularly trained in the way most of them think of their training. We think of a trained seal and dancing bears at the circus. You train them to trust you. And to trust that you are not going to make a fool of yourself and screw things up. They offer you a chance to be their junior hunting partner, and you have to know that you are the junior partner. 

All birds, including robins and titmice, chickadees, and parrots, they are all descendants of the meat-eating two-legged dinosaurs. None of them are descended of the plant-eating dinosaurs. 

None of the birds in the sky?

They’re all descended from the meat-eating theropod dinosaurs. And what’s very funny is we don’t think of birds as meat-eating, but most birds, at least during part of their lives, are eating insects. That’s meat. A robin eating a worm is a carnivore. I love it when they get a worm. Even hummingbirds, we think they’re just sipping nectar all the time. They’re eating eight hundred bugs a day. If they don’t get it, they don’t have any protein. That’s why they are so important to the world.

You write, “What a falconry hawk will do if you do everything right as to allow you to be their hunting partner, their junior partner. It’s a funny relationship.”

People don’t get that. Falconry is hunting. Frankly, I didn’t think of it when I first showed up. And it didn’t occur to me. I’ve been a vegetarian for 40 years. I have no desire to kill someone who would love to be alive for a short taste on my tongue. It does not interest me, but I am able to eat broccoli. Hawks have free will, but it’s not within their free will to suddenly switch over to not eating meat. They eat meat. When I realized I got to have a real relationship, not just a cursory friendship with these birds, I had to show myself a decent hunting partner to that being. I was in so deep I was so in love with them; nothing was going to get me to back off.

When I was driving over here, I thought this is a book about love. It doesn’t have to be the love of human beings, or it can be the love of the animals, the love of the ride over here even. You write, “the highest form of love was called agapé.” 

I remember that from church. A lot of writers don’t like to talk about this, but my writing and my thinking has been deeply influenced by my religious upbringing and reading the bible, and listening to sermons. A good preacher knows how to tell us a story. The preacher is doing what I’m doing. When this book came out, and every time I did a talk, Howard [her husband] would call it the octopus ministry. He’s an author and the best writer I’ve ever known, Howard Mansfield, and he’s written a gazillion books, and we’ve been together since the 1970s. 

The way a preacher wants to tell you a story that makes you love our Creator, I want to tell you a story that makes you love the creation. I want to tell you a story that makes you on fire to save the sea, the Amazon, the hawks, and the hummingbirds. Be kind to dogs and pigs and respect cassowaries. It’s a giant flightless bird that lives in Australia and Papua New Guinea. I’ve written about so many different animals, and so I’ve kind of gotten an agenda. In our work, we all want to make a contribution, we all want to change the world for the better, and this is the thing that has fallen to me to try and do, and I’m part of a huge number of people working on this. I’m on a good team.

How did you get on this path?

I thought when I was a small child that I wanted to be a veterinarian. In our day, If you’re in first grade, you don’t think like I’m going to be a field researcher. I wanted to help animals.

In our day, women wouldn’t be veterinarians.

Now we dominate the field. I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian until I began to learn to read, and my father would help me read stories from the New York Times because he always read the paper. He knew I was interested in animals, so he’d read me all the animal stories. All the animal stories in the New York Times in the 1960s when I was learning to read were all about the eagles going extinct because of DDT, whales going extinct because we were killing them all, and elephants being crowded off the planet. It’s our pollution. It’s our greed. People are murdering animals. I didn’t know that when they sprayed for mosquitoes, they were killing birds. Once people figured that out, we changed our ways. So, I thought if I could write and reach the people to change our behavior because now we realize that we love this animal so much and I can’t have a hand in its demise. I figured I could help more animals that way than I could even as a veterinarian. I decided I wanted to be a writer and write about animals as a child beginning to read.

Jazz. “A deep coppery brown with reddish shoulders and a white-tipped tail. She stands more than twenty inches tall.” Just the way you describe her. So magnificent. You fell in love with her. 

Later I learned that I was the only one that Jazz would fly to other than Nancy. I didn’t know that for years.

Why won’t birds fly to anybody if food is in the glove?

Animals observe us in minute details that we miss, and particularly hawk’s eyes are gathering so much of life that we miss. They see colors we don’t. They see at a speed that we can’t comprehend. They see all kinds of stuff. If someone is frightened, they can see it even if the person doesn’t know they are frightened. Maybe the person is distracted, which might bother them. Or maybe the person is wearing sunglasses and is the nicest person who ever lived, and the bird doesn’t like sunglasses. For some reason, Jazz flew to me, and I was floored to know that.

What is it like having Jazz fly to you and land on your glove?

Wow. It was staggering to have this force but a live force so close to you and to look into those eyes that gather so much of life. Also, I was surprised at the smack of her landing on my glove. Birds are light. She weighs a few pounds, but the force of her flight made her smack on my glove. I could feel, even with this thick kangaroo leather glove, the squeeze of her feet and the press of her talons. Her speed, her power, the wildness, all of those things blew me away. 

In the scene you describe with Nancy, the bird bites her on her face.

That was Banshee. Banshee is still with us. I couldn’t believe it. Someone is hurt. I felt like I should dab it with a Kleenex, and [Nancy is] like, oh what the hell. We were walking down the street, and cars were going by—three women walking by, each with a bird of prey on their arms. And one of them is bleeding profusely, and no one is paying any attention to this until someone pulls over and hands her a dead woodcock. It was quite evident that I had just stepped into another world. 

You wanted to go to that world. What pulled you there?

It was the bird, and Nancy was the facilitator. You know how you are drawn to certain people because they love what you love. Here’s a person who loved what I loved but also knew about this thing I was desperate, thirsty to have knowledge. She could tell me what not to screw up because I had no idea. Every other animal, including octopuses that I’ve gotten to know, once you assure them that you’re not going to eat them, and once they’ve decided they’re not going to eat you if you are going to see them again and again, you usually proceed to some kind of gentle touch. I’ve been able to get rhinoceroses to roll over. It wasn’t some wild rhinoceros. It was somebody’s rhinoceros. 

You rubbed its belly. 

I rubbed its inguinal region, and it flopped over just like a pig will. 

What region?

It’s the region where the legs join the torso and rub there; they like that a lot. It relaxes them. They’ll often just roll right over. Pigs will do this. If you start rubbing a calm pig there, the pig will roll over. This worked with the rhinoceros I met at someone’s ranch who had rhinos in Texas. They have the damndest things, strange wild animals. Even an octopus, when I first petted Athena, the first octopus I knew, after a while, she started turning white beneath my touch. 

What does that mean?

It’s their calm color. It’s also their dead color. My first instinct would have been with most animals to gently touch them. But you can’t do that with a hawk. They don’t want you touching them at all. There are some that will put up with it. I’ve worked training different animals sometimes. This guy [her dog begins to wag his tail] he can just feel the oxytocin flowing through my veins just being near him. With him and other birds I’ve known, other critters, there’s training techniques you can use by rewarding behavior that you like. That doesn’t work in terms of rewards with a hawk—even food. You’re not rewarding the bird with food. You’re giving them their food. It was their food to start with. You’re not doing a thing for them. You just happen to be the one handing them their food. That, too, was foreign to me. I didn’t go into thinking I knew anything. I knew nothing. I think they call this beginner’s mind. I do try to go into most relationships with animals with beginner’s mind. Everyone is an individual. Even if you “know” how to approach a dog, not every dog wants that. 

“Nancy had warned me, Jazz is feisty. And why do I love her so immediately.” But you do. 

I like that she was feisty. I liked the wildness of it. They are wild. Even if they have lived in someone’s aviary their whole lives, they are wild. They can fly away at any moment. 

Even if you have one you’re working with?

Yes, they do fly away all the time. 

What is a raptor?

A bird of prey. 

You include eagles, falcons, harriers, kestrels, and kites

So is an owl. Although it’s a nighttime bird of prey.

Now we have Jazz. You broke my heart twice. I teared up on that one.

Broke mine too. 

What happened to Jazz?

She had cancer. Nancy went in to check on her, and she thought she’s not looking good. And she died in her hands. The first symptom is usually death. Most birds hide their sickness until it’s too late. It’s very hard to care for birds if they are sick. She’d been eating and flying the day before. One day she keels over. But I’ll sign up for that.

“Present the back of your shoulder to her.” Why do you have to do that with a raptor?

In case you [have a] goshawk, Jazz was a Harris’s hawk, and they won’t do this, but when Nancy is teaching you, she wants you to be able to fly all of the different kinds of birds of prey. She wants it to be second nature to do the very safest thing, even with a goshawk. The problem with goshawks is sometimes they will attack your face. If you present your glove and you’re looking over this way, it’s easier to get away than if you are actually facing the bird.

Do you use the left hand for the glove?

Yes. You use the left hand for the glove because if you need to do anything with the jesses, the little bracelets they wear of leather, you need your dexterous right hand to do that. The other thing is if you are attacked, you want that dexterous right hand that’s quicker to shield your face. 

Please explain yarak. I took that to be the heart of what goes on with hawks.

That’s what they want more than anything else. It is the hawk’s heart’s desire. It is the thing they love more than anything, the thing that animates their soul. It is yarak. Yarak is the delight, the desire for, and the delight in getting the slip on game, chasing game. They like it if they can kill it and eat it too, but just being able to chase it is what they love the most. It’s kind of like to a human, travel is not just about the destination, the travel itself. For a hawk, yarak is not about just killing and eating your prey, but it’s chasing it. Even if you fail to kill and eat it, if you got a slip on the game, you’re often very satisfied. You’re not going to starve if you’re a falconry hawk. The person is going to give you something to eat. 

In this one part, you write, “Scout cries. Now he’s on Nancy’s glove. He’s in yarak. He wants to hunt. He hates the dog.”

They don’t like dogs. They think dogs are stupid and dumb and clumsy. But once you show them that the dog can help them find game, it’s like, here comes a dog. Good. Hawks do this until the dog knows that they’re useful.

This is how you end the book. You write, “Hunt hard. Kill swiftly. Waste nothing. Offer no apologies.” Whose motto is this?

It’s Nancy’s motto. But it’s really the hawk’s motto. They don’t understand or need the concept of apologies. They need not apologize. What they are doing is noble and pure. It’s wildness. They’re savage but without any evil. They’re doing what God created them to do, or evolution created them to do. In my heart, the two are the same. And in this bloody arrangement, there is beauty, and there is holiness, and there is no need to apologize. That was a lesson for me. 

Beverly Stoddart
Beverly Stoddart

Beverly Stoddart is a writer, author, and speaker. After 42 years of working at newspapers, she retired to write books and a blog. She is on the Board of Trustees of the New Hampshire Writers’ Project and is a member of the Winning Speakers Toastmasters group in Windham and the Ohio Writers’ Association. Her latest book is Stories from the Rolodex, mini-memoirs of journalists from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. A prized accomplishment was winning Carl Kassel’s voice for her voice mail when she won the National Public Radio game, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! She has been married for 45 years to her husband, Michael, and has one son and two rescue dogs.