Sovereigns of the Sky

In Mongolia a falconer finds the ultimate expression of his sport—hunting with the majestic golden eagle
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If you look at photographs of the people of Central Asia, sooner or later you'll see a man with a bird. I have one such picture in a book published in 1930; another, a transparency, has the Russian space shuttle in the background. The man is a Kazakh or a Kyrgyz tribesman; usually he is mounted and wears a fur hat. But the real constant is the bird—a female golden eagle (in Russian, a berkut). She stands on her handler's right arm, her head level with his. Her hard-knuckled talons are as large as human hands. Her great eyes may stare unemotionally into the camera or they may be covered by a leather hood.

As a falconer and a writer about human-animal relations, I've always been interested in the Kazakh and Kyrgyz eaglers, the berkutchi, whose practices may offer the clearest window onto how people and birds first learned to hunt together. The renowned naturalist and bird artist Roger Tory Peterson once wrote that man emerged from the mists of history with a peregrine falcon perched on his fist. It's a nice image, but it contains the wrong bird. Game hawking specifically with peregrines—a stylized drama in which a small, finicky bird flies over a highly trained dog, "stooping," or diving, at any game bird the dog flushes—has been practiced for only a few centuries, and purely as recreation. Whatever game reaches the table is symbolic, a sign of a successful outing rather than necessary provender.

Falconers can be found in a wide range of cultures today; they may be working-class Englishmen, Turkish peasants, or Arab billionaires. But backtracking along the various trails of the sport, one finds that they all converge on a single location: the Altai Mountains of Central Asia, ancestral home of the Turkic-speaking peoples. The Crusaders brought falconry practices back from the Arabs, who had learned them from the Turks; the Japanese learned from the Koreans, who had learned from the Chinese, who had learned from tribes "north of the waste." In the high valleys of the Altai, where present-day Siberia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan come together, herders started hunting with eagles about 6,000 years ago. When I began to pursue my interest in hunting with birds of prey, nearly forty years ago, I soon came across old tales of eagles that brought down large food animals, such as gazelles and deer, and protected their owners' herds against predators, including foxes and even wolves. I knew of nothing like this elsewhere in the world. Over the years the more I stared at the pictures from Central Asia, the more I wondered, Could the traditional practices of the berkutchi really have survived decades of forced settlement and collectivization?

In 1995 an old friend, the photographer David Edwards, went trekking in western Mongolia and returned with tales of people "from history, from legend, from myth." He spoke of Mongol sheep feasts, Tsataan who rode reindeer and lived in tepees, Kazakhs who wintered in adobe houses and hunted with eagles. Edwards said that the Kazakhs were hospitable and had eagles in every village. He knew a young Kazakh entrepreneur, Canat, who had learned English in the Soviet army and was willing to guide me. I was ready to go.

Some weeks later I stood blinking in a Mongolian courtyard in the blazing sun of a February morning. The night before, Canat and I had rattled into the village of Bayaan Nuur, in the northwestern province of Bayaan Olgii Aimag, in a Russian jeep. The village was near the home of Canat's mother-in-law, where we were staying, and Canat knew of a master eagler there. The eagler was a shepherd and potato farmer named Suleiman. His eagle, a two-year-old, dozed atop a tractor tire. She was nearly three feet from head to tail, thick and broad-shouldered, black-bodied and touched with gold on her neck. She wore a black-leather hood like those I had seen in the photos (eaglers generally keep their birds hooded except when they are flying, so that the birds will stay calm). Her bill was charcoal-colored and gracefully curved; her feet shone like yellow stone. Pale fluff fanned out over the white bases of her tail feathers. Braided leashes connected heavy sheepskin anklets on her legs to the hub of the wheel. In the bright desert light she glowed like a dark sun, as elegant as a living thing can be.

Suleiman ushered us inside to a brilliant-blue room. In it was another eagle, on a roughly carved tripod. A slender young man entered, carrying the first eagle on his right arm and a similar perch under his left. Canat explained that this was Suleiman's apprentice, Bakyt, who owned the second eagle, and that they were going to give the birds a drink. A child brought in a teapot and some lump sugar, decanting the tea into a drinking bowl and sweetening it while Canat translated. "Suleiman says that it is end of season. He has not flown eagles for two weeks. But tea and sugar give them energy, so they will be hungry and fly." Suleiman put one end of a length of rubber tubing into his mouth, like the end of a hookah, and made a joke ("He says it is the exhaust pipe"). He put the other end into the drinking bowl, sucked up some tea, and then emptied it into the first eagle's mouth. He repeated the process. The bird shook her head but otherwise remained still. "Now he will take the eagle's hood off," Canat said. "She will vomit fat if she has any." Indeed, after a moment the eagle gagged, brought up a little tea, shook her head again, and wiped her beak on the perch. She then "roused," shaking down all her feathers, and looked alertly about, as though a morning caffeine dose and purge were the most normal thing in the world. The other bird got a similar dosing, and we were ready to go.

Back out in the courtyard we found a bustling scene of organized chaos, with elements that spanned many centuries. A camel was signaled to kneel so that its rider could mount. Horses stood waiting as Suleiman gave brisk orders. Hunters slung rifles and shotguns over their shoulders, single-shot twelve-gauge Baikals. Siassi, our driver, fired up our jeep and popped in a cassette; wild Kazakh music with the rhythm of a galloping horse rang out loudly from the speakers. Suleiman motioned toward a ridge about a mile away: we would climb the rocks and sit on top while Suleiman's younger brothers beat the plain below for game. He, Bakyt, and the other riders set off.

A few minutes later we pulled up at the foot of the ridge. Suleiman gestured grandly from the back of his little white stallion, pointing his crop at the crest. "He says he will ride to the top," Canat told me. Astonishingly, Suleiman and Bakyt pointed their horses uphill and trotted straight up the rocks, carrying the eagles on their fists. Canat and I followed more cautiously on foot, holding on to the scant vegetation to keep from falling.

The view from the top was enormous. Red plains flattened out nearly as far as the eye could see. Snowy mountains, the high Altai, fringed the southern horizon; the black peaks in the province of Uvs reared up past the Hovds Gol (Blood River), to the east. Suleiman and Bakyt sat companionably with their eagles on the two highest boulders. Canat and I settled down nearby.

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