Sovereigns of the Sky

In Mongolia a falconer finds the ultimate expression of his sport—hunting with the majestic golden eagle

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.

And for the next two hours nothing happened. The hunters sat with a hunters' calm, which soon flowed into me. Canat talked quietly, quizzing me, for example, about the meanings and etymology of the English word "flush": "Is it the same word? Rabbit flushed. Suleiman's son flush rabbit. We flush toilet?" But mostly we sat and watched.

Suddenly a hare popped out of the thin desert scrub below, well away from any beater. Suleiman unhooded his bird and pointed her toward the running speck. She lowered her head and stared, bobbed her head, stared again, shifted her feet, lifted her tail, and deposited a small amount of liquid droppings to lighten her load. She launched—and flew thirty feet to a rock spire below. She leaned forward, watched intently for a moment, and then sat upright. She looked back at Suleiman, fluffed her feathers, roused and relaxed, and began to pipe plaintively in his direction.

No falconer needed a translation for those actions: sorry, too much work. Suleiman hiked down to retrieve his eagle and climbed back up to his horse. The hare was gone and the hunt was over, at least for the day.

Suleiman, Canat, and I made our way down, leaving the eagles on the summit under Bakyt's eye. When we reached the foot of the ridge, Suleiman produced a half-frozen hare on a cord from his bag. Birds, especially heavy ones like eagles, will readily fly at a lure for an easy reward even when they are not eager to hunt. He swung the lure until his bird launched herself, and then he dragged it along the sand, screaming like a dying rabbit. The eagle skidded into the lure, feet forward and crest up. Still screaming, Suleiman dragged her a few feet to simulate a fight and then dropped the cord. The eagle began gobbling morsels of the rabbit.

After a moment Suleiman beckoned to Bakyt and began to pull on the eagle-encumbered lure, resuming the dying-rabbit scream and stabbing his gloved hand toward the ridge. As Suleiman's eagle bristled, I saw a speck enlarging against the clear blue sky: Bakyt's bird, coming in. She circled uneasily and then landed lightly beside the lure. To my surprise, the first eagle moved over, and they began to feed side by side. Suleiman grabbed my hand and pulled me in, encouraging me to stroke the birds, to fold an outstretched wing, finally to hood them. They were more docile than any birds I had ever worked with—even the sweet-natured peregrines I had reared from ten-day-old fluffballs.

That evening, as I talked with Suleiman over shallow bowls of vodka, the reason for the eagles' tameness became apparent: Kazakhs literally live with their birds, conducting daily activities in their presence, eating and even sleeping with them in the room. Western falconers, in contrast, keep their birds in separate houses, where they are alone most of the time. The training methods Suleiman described were straightforward and simple, involving none of the elaborate technology—for example, tiny tail-mounted radio transmitters to keep track of wandering birds—that Western falconers employ. An eagle is fed sitting on the fist or the lure from the moment she is taken from the nest or trapped. Once she learns that she has nothing to fear from her owner and that she is rewarded when she comes back, she is ready to hunt. Instinct has given her all the skills she needs for that.

Suleiman liked to hunt foxes rather than hares or other small game, and he said that a good bird should take forty in a season—a haul that represents a significant amount of income for her owner. (Fox skins are worth the equivalent of $30 or $40 each.) "So you train eagles because it is practical?" I said to tease him, knowing there was far more to it. "Not just practical," Suleiman said. "Because it is very traditional, and the most interesting thing I know. I am sixty, and still I am learning."

Finally I asked about his bird's refusal to go after the live hare. Suleiman reminded me that it was very late in the hunting season. His sheep had begun to drop their lambs, and he no longer had time to hunt, so his bird was out of condition, both physically and mentally. The same was true of Bakyt's bird. Suleiman had dosed them with caffeine and flown them more to be polite to a guest than in expectation of success. In addition, the eagles were beginning their annual moult, during which they cannot be flown. He thought that most of the other eaglers in the area had already stopped flying their birds. To see a successful hunt I would have to come back.

Last fall I returned to Mongolia, accompanied by my wife, Libby. Canat and I had kept in touch over the years, and he agreed to serve as my guide again. This time he suggested that we hunt with his cousin Manai, a fierce-faced expert eagler who lives about twenty miles south of Olgii City.

As it happened, on our first day in Olgii City we ran into Manai in the bazaar. He was wearing a fox-fur hat made from one of his eagle's catches. He had buzzed into town for supplies on the quintessential Kazakh vehicle, a Russian motorcycle. After gathering our own provisions, we piled into Canat's battered Russian van and followed Manai into the tangle of dirt tracks that crisscross the mile-wide plain beneath the Altai. We followed one of the tracks up into the mountains and over a pass at 9,000 feet. Then we turned onto an even more rudimentary road for the climb to Manai's winter cabin, a thousand feet higher.

The cabin sat in a narrow valley framed from above by brown hills and dominated by the angular, white-clad mass of a still higher peak. Flocks of choughs and hill pigeons swirled in the deep azure sky, and herds of yaks and horses grazed below. Manai's sons, aged eleven and fourteen, were out hunting with his eagle, a bird he had worked with for two years. When they arrived, the older son dismounted and tossed the eagle to the ground, where she shook down her feathers and stood placidly as he patted her head, much as one would pat a spaniel's. The eagle had gone after but missed a wolf on the volcanic ridge that formed the south wall of the valley. Manai declared that we would hunt there the following day.

We returned the next morning and met up with Manai and a neighbor of his on the ridge. Manai suggested that Canat and Libby drive along the base of the cliff, in order to see the flight in relative comfort, while he and his neighbor rode the ridge, carrying their eagles on their fists. I was to scramble along the side of the slope in order to block any attempts of prey to flee downhill.

A half hour later, sweating and wheezing in my effort to keep up with the horsemen above and the van below, I saw Manai's eagle spring from his glove and start to climb. She unfurled her wings and slid sideways until she caught an updraft from the plain below. Instantly, barely moving her wings, she was carried up. When she reached a height of about 200 feet, she turned back toward us and plummeted. Below her a fawn-colored corsac fox was cascading down the rocky ledges like a furry waterfall. The fox dodged, and the eagle missed, but she recovered, spread her wings, soared up fifty feet, and stooped again. This time there was no escape. The eagle slammed into the fox, raising a cloud of dust and snow that dissipated immediately in the wind. Her wings were spread in a black cloak, her head and crest raised like a dragon's. Suddenly lifeless, in the clutch of her talons, the fox was a compelling token of the most magnificent flight I have ever seen.

Back home, I sorted through the objects I had collected during my trips. They seemed like artifacts retrieved with a time machine: an old hood—a gift from Manai—that had belonged to an eagle who had killed a wolf and later been killed by one, a brand-new hood from Suleiman, a fox pelt. The berkutchi's traditions had survived Stalinism, Russian jeeps, and video games, but I worried about new threats. Canat had told me that ecotourists and trekking expeditions were beginning to discover the Kazakhs. On my wall hangs a photo that gives cause for optimism: caught in a golden beam of afternoon light, Manai strums a domboro— a Kazakh two-string guitar—and serenades his eagle with a song he has composed for her.