To hunt with a bird of prey in Central Asia, you usually must catch one yourself. Unlike in Europe and North America, captive breeding of raptors remains rare. There is at least one breeding center in Kazakhstan, the Sunkar Falcon Center near the Almarasan Gorge outside of Almaty. A Kyrgyz documentary film shows that a raptor breeding center once operated on the north shore of Lake Yssyk-Köl, apparently by a Russian scientist, but it seems to have been one of the unfortunate victims of the 1990s economic collapse. Nearly all birds used in Central Asian falconry, then, are what Western falconers call “passage birds”, birds of prey that have been caught from the wild.
If one is interested in training a bird of prey, there are instances where you need not catch it yourself. A photograph from a Kyrgyz archive, approximately dated to some time in the early 20th century, was found labeled “torgovtsy s sokolami”, or “traders with falcons.” At least a dozen men can be seen mingling about and four carry juvenile Northern goshawks, showing off their wares to prospective customers. If such a bazaar existed before, it certainly does not now. To obtain a goshawk now, one would have to make an arrangement with a hunter directly. Sometimes these are made before the capture, a kind of pre-order by someone without the adequate knowledge to get the prize themselves. Other times, a sale or barter can be made with a bird that’s already been caught. Experienced hunters will sometimes catch an eagle only to fall on hard times financially and no longer be able to afford to feed an extra mouth. In that case, they might reluctantly sell their bird to get back on their feet. In other instances we’ve seen, less-experienced hunters have grown frustrated with a sick or underperforming bird, and have offered to sell it or trade it to another hunter for a discount. Especially because of modern regulations, with nearly all raptors found in the “Red Book” of endangered species of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, a modern raptor bazaar would be impossible. To buy a bird is always a black-market affair, an arrangement between friends.
In some rare cases, a bird of prey is sold or gifted to non-hunters, usually powerful people who accept the birds as status symbols. In 2010, Sary-Ata gave a bürküt to Temir Sariev, a businessman, former deputy prime minister, and leader of the major political party Ak Shumkar (which means, coincidentally, “White Falcon”). Ak Shumkar had sponsored several falconry festivals arranged by Almaz Akunov in which Sary-Ata and his apprentices won prizes and recognition; the eagle was a symbol of gratitude for this patronage. Sariev was also made honorary president of the Salburun falconry federation. In return for the eagle, Sariev reportedly gave 10,000 som, or a little over 200 dollars. There have also been frequent stories of eagles given to the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev, both for his own personal ownership and for re-gifting to other patrons.
If you are not a president or politician, however, and you’d like to catch your own hunting bird, there is much you need to first know. There are two main ways to catch a wild raptor, and both require significant experience and practical knowledge. The first is to capture a bird from the nest. Caught in the spring only weeks after birth, these birds develop a stronger bond with their new surrogate parents than do mature birds. They are also considered spoiled and impetuous, though, often identifiable by their chirping vocalizations. Mature birds of prey are caught using the second method, a trapping system with poles and nets. An eagle caught this way, called a tor bürküt, or “net eagle”, has already learned to fear man and can be more manageable in the training process. Having already developed their hunting instincts in the wild, they can be more confident hunters than those from the nest, but with this experience comes greater timidity about catching larger game they may not be of proper size to tackle. The young, nest-caught birds can be more bold in their prey selections, often targeting young wolves or large foxes that a tor bürküt might avoid.
When we first arrived at Sary-ata’s home in Ak Say Sovkhoz, he had caught a chüylü, or female goshawk, in a net nine days prior. In the hills above his family home, seven nets had been evenly spaced out, set up along the ridgelines for greater visibility and located along raptor flight paths that had been previously observed by the Sary-ata and his grandchildren. Each trap consisted of four sticks, two meters high, stuck into the dirt in a quadrangle, with a net then wrapped around them and secured with thin strings and notches in the sticks. The nets were designed in such a way that they slid along a taut string along the top, and in this way could collect and bundle up along whatever was captured. Before the nets were strung, a living lure was tied up in the middle of the quadrangle. In Sary-ata’s case, a pigeon had been set up as bait, secured with a small leash and stake of the man’s own design, and kept alive with a small water dish made of a sliced up plastic soda bottle. In another of his traps, a young hen was used, secured with a small harness made of netting. Ravens, ptarmigans or partridges were also common bait. When the raptors flying overhead would see these stranded birds, they would strike at them from an angle and the net would collapse around them. If a raptor would be capable or clever enough to strike from above, avoiding the net fencing, they would be unable to escape without taking off at an angle and ultimately trapping themselves.
Of course, it is a whole other task to catch the birds that are used as bait – one must catch one bird in order to catch another. Sary-ata’s grandsons would go into Bokonbaevo, the regional center, and wait for night to fall. Asking locals where the pigeons roost, they would wait until nightfall when, apparently, pigeons’ eyesight is poor. Shining a flashlight in their eyes blinds them further, and they are scooped up by hand or lassoed with a kultak, a tool made of a stick with a looped snare on the end. It is a regular operation, for as we will learn later, pigeons are used not just for bait but for raptor feed as well. Some hunters have techniques for catching partridges as well, as they also make for good bait and feed. Ima Adashov, a hunter from the village of Ak Bulak in Southern Kyrgyzstan, kept a female partridge in a cage made out of a wooden lattice and a tin bucket. The female was a lure to catch more partridges, which would be lures to catch more raptors; it was a chain of trickery, all in the service of eventual hunting. The lady partridge would be set up in a field next to Adashov’s house, tied to the ground and surrounded by a nearly invisible trap. The trap was made out of a synthetic green kind of fishing line that was made into interlocking circles, one hooked onto another like a magician’s rings. When the male partridge heard the female’s call, it would step into one of the rings and, in its struggle to get out, the other rings pull the circle closed, like a special knot. The partridges would then go in a falcon trap, and the cycle would continue.
Sary-ata’s grandson Rustam would visit their family’s own traps every morning and evening, walking a circuit from net to net to see if anything had been caught, occasionally skipping a check-up by looking at far-away traps with an old pair of binoculars. Sometimes, the pigeons had died overnight from the cold or starvation and would need to be replaced; in one instance, tracks in the snow told us that a fox had visited overnight. It was clever enough to somehow take the pigeon without getting caught in the net – all that was left in the middle was blood and feathers. Not all hunters followed Sary-ata’s method of unsupervised traps and frequent check-ups. Instead, others had the patience to build a hunting blind (a structure to hide a hunter from its prey) out of sticks or piled stones. They might then wait for hours for a bird to fall into their trap, the highest prize being a bürküt. These hunters might leave some meat in the net with the leashed-up lure; a raptor, seeing this from above, might be more likely to attack and fall into the trap, driven by jealousy to intervene.
A pigeon awaits its fate.
This kind of trap, with four sticks and a net, was fairly standardized amongst Kyrgyz hunters. In Bayan-Olgii, Mongolia, Kazakhs sometimes use six sticks instead, arranged in a circular shape “like a yurt.” Other variations come in the type of netting used. The strings now are sometimes store-bought, for example, but were traditionally spun out of animal fibers by the hunter with the aid of his wife.
Upon finally trapping a passing raptor, the hunters would carefully grab it from behind, holding the wings against the body so that they would not flap in panic and get injured in the netting, pointing the sharp talons away as a helper slid a tomogo, or leather hood, over the head of the bird. This is the first stage in the manning process, to be discussed later in more depth. The bird might then be further bundled in a cloth or a bag and carried home with victorious yelps and hollers. Family members at home would greet the new bird by tossing baursak, doughnut-like fried puffs, in its direction, offering congratulations and well-wishes. After catching his new chüylü, Sary-ata rubbed its talons with sary may, a butter-like dairy product (a similar ritual is also done with the hooves of new horses.) Nine loaves of bread were cooked (some say it should be seven) and Muslim prayers were read. As with the acquisition of any shiny new thing in Central Asian culture, the new bird was met with the visits of friends and neighbors, offering gifts of money, food, or alcohol in congratulations.
Similar rituals would be performed in an eagle would be caught from the nest, which is the second main method for capture after the net technique. Eagles make their homes in cliffside nests called aeries, usually at higher elevation in craggy terrain. They can be hard to spot, the brown twigs blending in well against the drab colors of the cliffs, but knowledgeable hunters have a mental map of all nesting locations in their region. Nests are frequently re-used, so even if one is abandoned one year, it may be inhabited the next. With Talgar Shaybyrov, one of Bokonbaevo’s most well-known falconers, we went into the hills near Kadji-Say, on the south shore of Lake Yssyk-Köl, to check in on a known nest. The local eagles were known to lay their eggs around late April and early May, and in June it was thought that a young eagle might be ready for the taking. We found the nest hidden in the nook of a cliff and trampled across the side of the hill, holding onto exposed roots to keep from falling into the ravine below. When Talgar got close to the nest, his assistant through a rope from the top of the cliff, and he tied it around his waist as a safety measure. One last scramble up the cliffside (a hunter must be in fine shape) and Talgar was in the nest. The bird was still covered entirely in the white down feathers of its first month – it was decided that it was too young to take home. Talgar’s helpers, meanwhile, looked out for the parents, who were likely off hunting.
Talgar prepares his harness.
There was always a danger of the angry mother returning in the middle of a kidnapping, so Central Asian falconers had devised several preventative solutions. In nomadic times, Sary-ata confirmed, the burglarizing hunter might protect himself with a kanat, one of the collapsible wooden lattice segments of a yurt, holding it in front of him as a shield. If t the nest was only accessible from above, the hunter would be slowly let down the cliff with the same kind of improvised rope harness that Talgar wore; to prevent himself from spinning or getting snagged, he carried a pole. This pole could also be used to ward off a diving eagle, Sary-ata said. Banging loud cookware was another scare tactic, and in modern times a gun might be shot, though loaded with blanks.
If the young eaglet would deemed mature enough and ready for the taking, it might be stuffed in a bag, which would then be hauled up the cliff with another rope. Talgar preferred to take the bird and wrap it in a rag, then stuff it in the inside of his coat.
Other raptors, like goshawks and Saker falcons, usually lay their nests in trees, which are considerably easier to access. As with the pigeons, the birds are ambushed in the dark of night. A nimble climber, a child or the hunter himself, scales the tree and with a torch or a flashlight illuminates the nest. The hunter grabs the bird and, as with the eagle, sticks it in a bag or wraps it into his coat. If the bird is harder to reach or growing defensive, the invader can use a kultak, the snare-tool mentioned earlier.