Hunting with eagles

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Song dynasty painting of Khitan eagle hunters on horse 10th century

Hunting with eagles is a traditional form of falconry found throughout the Eurasian Steppe, practiced by ancient Khitan and Turkic peoples. Today it is practiced by Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz in contemporary Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as diasporas in Bayan-Ölgii Provinces Bayan-Ölgii, Mongolia, and Xinjiang, China. Though these people are most famous for hunting with golden eagles, they have been known to train northern goshawks, peregrine falcons, saker falcons, and more.[1]

From The Bigger Picture section in Chapter 1 of Dr. Lauren McGough's PhD thesis study entitled "Partnerships and understanding between Kazakh pastoralists and golden eagles of the Altai mountains : a multi-species ethnography" published on April 12, 2019 (University of St. Andrews): "I’d like to [...] give the reader a broader overview of the pastoralism and eagle culture of Bayan-Olgii. This westernmost province or aimag of Mongolia, which is 80% ethnically Kazakh, comprises several counties or soums. The provincial capital is Olgii, a city of some 30,000 people. The Kazakhs of Bayan-Olgii are somewhat isolated – torn between their nation-state of Kazakhstan, within which they would not be able to live a traditional nomadic, pastoralist lifestyle, and the country of Mongolia, a state that is populated by ethnic Mongols, who are primarily Buddhist and have an entirely different linguistic, historical and cultural tradition. Kukan and my informants proudly referred to themselves as “Mongolian Kazakhs” and felt that they would neither fit in, nor desire to live in, Kazakhstan or in the other aimags of Mongolia. Within Bayan-Olgii, there are some 300 Kazakhs who keep eagles. The majority of them live in Olgii city or in Sagsai, a village some 30 kilometers from Olgii. In the more remote soums, such as Daluun, Bayan-Nuur and Bulgan (200-500 kilometers distant) there are perhaps a dozen berkutchi in each. Hunting with eagles changes quite profoundly the further you travel from Olgii city. The key to understanding this is tourism.In the 1990s, Mongolia devoted a lot of funding and resources to encouraging tourism and creating a navigable tourist infrastructure. It has been very successful, and outside mining, tourism now represents the primary source of GDP for the country. In 1999, the Golden Eagle Festival was founded in Olgii City in order to encourage tourism to Bayan-Olgii. The Festival takes place In October, and consists of three events over two days in which a panel of judges scores a berkutchi and his eagle. The first event is a judging of the berkutchi’s appearance.Is he (as well as the horse and eagle) wearing traditional clothing, and howexceptional does it look? The second event is a judging of an eagle’s willingness to fly to the berkutchi’s glove. How fast does the eagle respond? The third and final event is a judging of an eagle’s willingness to attack a dragged fox pelt. Does she attack it aggressively as if it were a real fox? Since actual hunting takes place in deep winter and is very physically demanding, many tourists are not able to experience it. The Festival is a substitute. However, the eagles that will excel at the Festival are very different from eagles that will excel at catching foxes in remote areas.In the next chapter, I will write about how sub-adult eagles are trapped and socialized with humans. These eagles, fiercely independent creatures, are ideal hunting partners. However, they aren’t so tolerant of new situations or crowds of people. At the Festival, which has become very popular in recent years (hosting several hundred tourists), wild-trapped sub-adult eagles will not tolerate flying near huge crowds. They’ll fly away instead, back to the safety of the remote, sparsely inhabited stretches of the Altai. In order to have eagles to fly at the Festival, some Kazakhs have taken to using colberkuts or ‘hand-eagles’. These are eagles where are taken from the nest as downy chicks, or eyasses to use the falconry term, at mere days of age. These eagles become imprinted on humans, and know nothing other than life with humans. Thus, they are impossible to lose and have no fear of the largest thronging crowd. They will fly to the glove and the fox pelt at the Festival without issue.However, these eagles, deprived of the learning experience with their parents, don’t know how to hunt. As any fox-catching eaglehunter will tell you, humans can only do a poor job of teaching an eagle how to hunt. The utility of trapping a sub-adult eagle, is it already knows how to catch foxes, you merely have to convince the eagle that you are an ally in that pursuit. What I then found, is that the closer I was to Olgii city, the more colberkuts I saw. These hand-raised eagles gives themselves away by continually begging for food (these eagles are too mentally stunted to reach adolescence, and can never be released). The food call is a loud “psh-ack psh-ack psh-ack” sound. They also fly weakly and have no level of fitness. As useless as colberkuts are for hunting, they are great for tourism. Tourists don’t know the difference. A large portion of the 300 berkutchi mentioned are Kazakhs who keep these colberkuts purely to take to the Festival and to show to tourists.One can hardly blame them, as to be able to invite tourists into your home can represent a lot of income for a family that typically relies on volatile cashmere and meat prices.However, this recent phenomenon of the Festival and colberkuts is not within the scope of this thesis. This thesis is focused on eagle culture and the tradition of hunting with eagles as it relates to the practical catching of foxes. That is, the millennia sustained tradition of trapping sub-adult eagles, socializing them to hunt in partnership with humans, and then releasing them. This is the tradition from which the vast well of ethno-ornithological knowledge of the Kazakh people comes.Outside the magnet of Olgii City, Kazakhs are watching for clues about the movement of eagles. The window for trapping, when migrating eagles bottleneck in Bayan-Olgii, is a few short weeks in October. This rush can initiate a flurry of activity. Herders are in constant contact to try to spot the first individuals coming down and ascertain when the migration reaches its zenith and when the most advantageous time to lay traps is. It’s a period of extreme uncertainty. There is necessarily an element of luck involved in trapping an eagle, especially one that will be a great hunting partner. Many superstitions about the natural world come into play when one is searching for an eagle. Trapping an eagle is almost seen as a gift from the divine, and if you’ve harbored bad thoughts or acted unscrupulously against nature, you will look in vain until the window is closed. But if you’ve done well by your family, livestock and nature, you might trap an eagle so fine she’ll be with you for ten years. Kukan, my mentor, used the eagles in his life to mark the passage of time. At 59 years old, he counted backwards the 8 eagles he had flown in his lifetime. The great hunters, the kirans he flew for a decade. The mediocre eagles he stayed with for a year or two. Eagles colored everything he mentioned from his past. A son was born when he had a kiran, and his wife had died when he had an eagle that seemingly couldn’t catch anything. He spoke of the time of his wife’s death with anguish – he didn’t even have an eagle then that could help him escape the pain he had felt. One of the happiest times in Kukan’s life is when he used to hunt with his father in his twenties. They both had eagles that were wonderful hunters, true kirans, and many days they would come home with a fox affixed to each horses’ saddle – no easy feat. When I asked Kukan of all the eagles he had flown, whichwas his favorite, he didn’t hesitate to answer that his favorite was the eagle he flew with his father. I suspected that though the eagle was great hunter, the fact that she brought him close to his father was the true reason she was regarded so highly. Eagles can be intergenerational glue. As individual eagles helped Kukan mark different periods of his life, so did the greater community of eagles. He spoke of years where there were eagles everywhere and years where there were no wild eagles to be seen. Eagles were an indicator of the health of the natural world, and whether the Kazakhs were being responsible to Allah or not. On low eagle years, Kukan and his brethren were reluctant to hunt wild game, as they feared that had taken too much previously. On abundant eagle years, Kukan was always organizing hunts for wolves and deer as it was the time to harvest. From a biological perspective, when a top tier predator species is abundant, the animals that comprise the rest of the pyramid must also be robust and numerous in order to sustain that level of predation." [21]


In both Kazakh and Kyrgyz, there are separate terms for those who hunt with birds of prey in general, and those who hunt with eagles.

In Kazakh, both qusbegi and sayatshy refer to falconers in general. Qusbegi comes from the words qus ("bird") and bek ("lord"), thus literally translating as "lord of birds." In Old Turkic, kush begi was a title used for the khan's most respected advisors, reflecting the valued role of the court falconer.[2] Sayatshy comes from the word sayat ("falconry") and the suffix -shy, used for professional titles in Turkic languages. The Kazakh word for falconers that hunt with eagles is bürkitshi, from bürkit ("golden eagle"), while the word for those that use goshawks is qarshyghashy, from qarshygha ("goshawk").

In Kyrgyz, the general word for falconers is münüshkör. A falconer who specifically hunts with eagles is a bürkütchü, from bürküt ("golden eagle").



In Old Turkic, kush begi was a title used for the khan's most respected advisors, reflecting the valued role of the court falconer.[3]


In 936-45 AD the Khitans, a nomadic people from Manchuria, conquered part of north China.[4] In 960 AD China was conquered by the Song dynasty.[5] From its beginnings, the Song dynasty was unable to completely control the Khitan who had already assimilated much of Chinese culture. Throughout its 300-year rule of China, the Song dynasty had to pay tribute to the Khitan to keep them from conquering additional Song dynasty territory.[6] Despite the fact that the Khitans assimilated Chinese culture, they retained many nomadic traditions, including eagle hunting[7]


In 1207, the Kyrgyz nomads surrendered to Genghis Khan's son Jochi. Under Mongol rule, the Kyrgyz preserved their nomadic culture as well as eagle falconry traditions.[8][9] Archaeologists trace back falconry in Central Asia to the first or second millennium BC.[10] [11]


During the communist period in Kazakhstan, many Kazakhs fled for Mongolia to avoid being forced to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and sent to collective farms.[12] They settled in Bayan-Ölgii Province and brought with them their tradition of hunting with eagles. There are an estimated 250 eagle hunters in Bayan-Ölgii, which is located in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia. [13][14][15] Their falconry custom involves hunting with golden eagles on horseback, and they primarily hunt red foxes and corsac foxes.[16] They use eagles to hunt foxes and hares during the cold winter months when it is easier to see the gold-colored foxes against the snow.[17][18] Each October, Kazakh eagle hunting customs are displayed at the annual Golden Eagle Festival.[19][20] Although the Kazakh government has made efforts to lure the practitioners of these Kazakh traditions back to Kazakhstan, most Kazakhs have remained in Mongolia.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Keen, Dennis. "Kyrgyz Falconers Use Falcons, Too". The Central Asian Falconry Project. Retrieved 30 September 2014.
  2. ^ Bosworth, C. E.; van Donzel, E.; Lewis, B.; Pellat, C., eds. (1980). The Encyclopaedia of Islam. Vol. 5. Leiden: E. J. Brill. p. 18.
  3. ^ Gibb, Sir H. A. R. (1954). The Encyclopaedia of Islam. Brill Archive.
  4. ^ The Art of War by Sun Tzu - Special Edition by Sun Tzu and Lionel Giles (2005) p.170
  5. ^ China: Its History and Culture (4th Edition) by W. Scott Morton, Charlton M. Lewis, and Charlton Lewis (2004) p.100
  6. ^ 5 Steps to a 5: AP World History (5 Steps to a 5) by Peggy Martin (2004) p.115
  7. ^ Eagle Dreams: Searching for Legends in Wild Mongolia by Stephen J. Bodio (2003) p. 26
  8. ^ Soma, Takuya. 2007. ‘Kyrgyz Falconry & Falconers and its Transition’. In Proceedings of Great Silk Road Conference, Culture and Traditions, Then and Now 2006. 130-139. Tashkent: Academy of Uzbekistan/ UNESCO
  9. ^ 相馬拓也 2008「形象なき文化遺産としての狩猟技術: キルギス共和国イシク・クル湖岸における鷹狩猟のエスノグラフィ」『国士舘大学地理学報告2007(第16号)』: pp.99-106 [1]
  10. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-02-18. Retrieved 2012-04-07.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  11. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on December 3, 2013. Retrieved December 1, 2013.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  12. ^ "Kazakhstan Maps & Facts". 24 February 2021.
  13. ^ "IJIH - International Journal of Intangible Heritage".
  14. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-12-03. Retrieved 2013-12-01.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  15. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-10-17. Retrieved 2015-10-17.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  16. ^ "Hanging with eaglehunters in western Mongolia".
  17. ^
  18. ^ "Takuya Soma (2014) Eagle Hunters in Action: Hunting Practice of Altaic Kazakh Falconers in Western Mongolia, Falco (No.44) | PDF | Falconry | Fox".
  19. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-01-22. Retrieved 2012-12-11.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  20. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2017-06-21. Retrieved 2014-06-14.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)

21. McGough, Lauren's PhD thesis study entitled "Partnerships and understanding between Kazakh pastoralists and golden eagles of the Altai mountains: a multi-species ethnography" published on April 12, 2019 (University of St. Andrews).

Further reading[edit]

McGough, Lauren's PhD thesis study entitled "Partnerships and understanding between Kazakh pastoralists and golden eagles of the Altai mountains: a multi-species ethnography" published on April 12, 2019 (University of St. Andrews).

  • Keen, Dennis. 2014. 'The Central Asian Falconry Project'. [2]
  • Soma, Takuya. 2012. ‘Contemporary Falconry in Altai-Kazakh in Western Mongolia’The International Journal of Intangible Heritage (vol.7), pp. 103–111. [3]
  • Soma, Takuya. 2012. ‘Ethnoarhchaeology of Horse-Riding Falconry’, The Asian Conference on the Social Sciences 2012 - Official Conference Proceedings, pp. 167–182. [4]
  • Soma, Takuya. 2012. ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Arts and Knowledge for Coexisting with Golden Eagles: Ethnographic Studies in “Horseback Eagle-Hunting” of Altai-Kazakh Falconers’, The International Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences Research, pp. 307–316. [5]
  • Soma, Takuya. 2012. ‘The Art of Horse-Riding Falconry by Altai-Kazakh Falconers’. In HERITAGE 2012 (vol.2) - Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Heritage and Sustainable Development, edited by Rogério Amoêda, Sérgio Lira, & Cristina Pinheiro, pp. 1499–1506. Porto: Green Line Institute for Sustainable Development. ISBN 978-989-95671-8-4.
  • Soma, Takuya. 2012. ‘Horse-Riding Falconry in Altai-Kazakh Nomadic Society: Anthropological Researches in Summertime Activities of Falconers and Golden Eagle’. Japanese Journal of Human and Animal Relation 32: pp. 38–47 (written in Japanese).
  • Soma, Takuya. 2013. ‘Ethnographic Study of Altaic Kazakh Falconers’, Falco: The Newsletter of the Middle East Falcon Research Group 41, pp. 10–14. [6]
  • Soma, Takuya. 2013. ‘Ethnoarchaeology of Ancient Falconry in East Asia’, The Asian Conference on Cultural Studies 2013 - Official Conference Proceedings, pp. 81–95. [7]
  • Soma, Takuya. 2013. ‘Hunting Arts of Eagle Falconers in the Altai-Kazakhs: Contemporary Operations of Horse-Riding Falconry in Sagsai County, Western Mongolia’. Japanese Journal of Human and Animal Relation 35: pp. 58–66 (written in Japanese).
  • Soma, Takuya & Battulga, Sukhee. 2014. 'Altai Kazakh Falconry as Heritage Tourism: “The Golden Eagle Festival” of Western Mongolia', "The International Journal of Intangible Heritage vol. 9", edited by Alissandra Cummins, pp. 135–148. Seoul: The National Folk Museum of Korea. [8] Archived 2017-06-21 at the Wayback Machine
  • Takuya Soma. 2014. ‘Eagle Hunters in Action: hunting practice of Altaic Kazakh falconers in Western Mongolia’, Falco: The Newsletter of the Middle East Falcon Research Group 44, pp. 16–20. [9]
  • Takuya Soma. 2014. Human and Raptor Interactions in the Context of a Nomadic Society: Anthropological and Ethno-Ornithological Studies of Altaic Kazakh Falconry and its Cultural Sustainability in Western Mongolia (PhD Thesis submitted to University of Kassel, 20 August 2014)

External links[edit]