“The sight of a Eurasian nomad hunting with swift horse, loyal dog, and powerful golden eagle is a majestic scene with ancient roots. For thousands of years this was how the nomadic peoples of the northern steppes from the Caucasus to Manchuria hunted for survival. “
The ancient practice of eagle falconry is carried on today by about 200-400 eagle hunters and a handful of eagle huntresses, in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and the Xinjiang province of China (estimates vary). The majority of Kazakh eagle hunters live in the Altai region of northwest Mongolia, and the families keep in touch with Kazakhs in the other countries.
Female eagles, larger, fiercer, and more powerful than males, are preferred as hunting companions by Kazakhs; Kyrgyz eagle hunters train both females and males. Several types of eagles are recognized with different abilities. Fledglings or sub-adult eagles are captured from the nest and trained to hunt. According to tradition, after 5-7 years the eagles are released back to the wild to mate and raise young.
Archaeology suggests that eagle huntresses were probably more common in ancient times. Recent and spectacular archaeological discoveries of graves (ca 700 BC to AD 300) across ancient Scythia, from Ukraine to China, reveals that steppe nomad females engaged in the same riding and hunting activities as the men, and about one third of the women were active warriors in battle. The reason more women do not take it up, as men explain, they have “work to do” with little free time. Whereas the men participate in “hunting games” and have more time. Regardless, if women want to learn, they can.
This culture is fascinating and I am glad to know it is a “woman’s” sport if they choose it. These women are fierce in their desires to be eagle huntresses. They are revered for their skills. Knowing the relationships they have with their eagles from the time they snatch them from the nests to their release a few years after, shows the respect they each have for one another…..an understanding and cooperation.
The Eagle Huntress is a 2016 internationally co-produced Kazakh-language documentary film directed by Otto Bell and narrated by executive producer Daisy Ridley. It follows the story of Aisholpan, a 13-year-old Kazakh girl from Mongolia, as she attempts to become the first female eagle hunter to compete in the eagle festival at Ulgii, Mongolia, established in 1999. Aisholpan, trains to become the first female in twelve generations of her Kazakh family to become an eagle hunter, and rises to the pinnacle of a tradition that has been handed down from father to son for centuries. Set against the breathtaking expanse of the Mongolian steppe, THE EAGLE HUNTRESS features some of the most awe-inspiring cinematography every captured in a documentary, giving this intimate tale of a young girl’s quest the dramatic force of an epic narrative film.
In 2009, an eagle hunting elder named Kukan, in Bayan Ulgii, Kazakhstan, taught an American falconer, a young woman from Oklahoma, Lauren McGough, to be a bürkitshi. Her experience shows that eagle hunting is always open to women, even non-Kazakhs, as long as they are strong and determined. Witnessing Lauren’s joy in bringing in game taken by her magnificent eagle, Kukan exclaimed, “Why didn’t I ever take my daughters hunting?” Lauren is a highly accomplished eagle huntress, and she and her eagle have participated in many fox and rabbit hunts in northwestern Mongolia with Kazakhs in 2009-2013. Lauren also hunts with eagles in Scotland, Idaho, and Wyoming.
Today falconers are used for other reasons. Kristine Kirkby is a falconer. Her story tells how she got into this work. It started as a 3 year old child watching the cartoon “Rescuers Down Under, where a boy rode on the back of a golden eagle. When she was a little older she saw a real golden eagle and knew she would never be able to ride on the back of one. But her desires had been born. Today, she doesn’t use raptors to hunt, as is typical with falconry— the ancient practice of hunting wild game using a trained bird of prey. She works with them to scare other birds away from Vancouver International Airport for the airport’s wildlife management program.
Kirkby is a part of a highly trained team of humans and raptors that keep the runways and airspace safe by chasing away the many geese, ducks, and other birds that like to congregate at the airport. Airplanes collide with birds on a regular basis. The US Federal Aviation Association reports that there were nearly 180,000 bird strikes in the US with civil aircrafts between 1990 and 2015. The strikes are generally fatal to the birds involved and can cause damage to aircraft, even leading to crashes such as the 2009 US Airways Flight 1549 that resulted in an emergency water landing on the Hudson River in New York City.
Kristine journeyed to witness the Western Mongolian Golden Eagle Festival. She had mixed feelings about how they flew their birds and how they treated their animals. Some of them were so great with their birds she could tell they adored them and really think that those people were the most successful. The birds really seemed to trust them and it seemed like an easy relationship. She met Aishol-pan of the Eagle Huntress documentary and watched her at the competition. She was so calm and sweet with her bird and she did so well.
From her experience working with our birds, the contrast at the competition reinforced that if you treat an animal a certain way they respond accordingly. “They’re wild animals and your trying to establish a partnership, but at the end of the day it’s up to them whether they’re going to work with you or not.”