The bürkütchülör, or eagle hunters, of Kyrgyzstan are world famous. In my Fulbright research on Kyrgyz falconry, I tried to understand the roots and implications of this fame, and I worked almost entirely with bürkütchülör. Lately, I’ve been regretting that I didn’t spend more time speaking to falconers who flew smaller birds of prey, like goshawks, peregrines, and sakers. On September 4th and 5th, a couple dozen falconers came to the lake town of Cholpon-Ata for the 2nd annual International Salburun Festival, and I took this opportunity to photograph and interview several of Kyrgyzstan’s overshadowed hawkers.
Nurbek, 23 years old, Bosteri, Issyk Kul province.
Nurbek was strikingly tall and unflinchingly serious. When he was a boy, he became interested in falconry. Though nobody in his immediate family practiced, it was somehow his fate, as his great great grandfathers had been falconers and bürkütchülör, too. On his fist was a saker falcon, a year old, still quite small, he said, that he would use to hunt ducks and pheasants in the winter. Last winter he had a different bird. Nurbek would take a new one every year, training, hunting, and releasing on a compact schedule.
Melisbek Barpyev, 40 years old, Talas.
Melis spoke Russian better than most of the other falconers, and he was a gregarious subject, chatting up foreign falconers with conviction. Other falconers, like David Tsaro from Georgia, were concerned that his one-year-old goshawk was too thin, and it had some bumps on its legs that were disconcerting. Melis argued that he was just trying to get the bird at a good flying weight, that it was perfectly normal that it hadn’t molted that summer, and that he had fashioned special velvet bumpers to protect the jesses from rubbing against the troublesome scabs. He had years of experience, he insisted. When he was little, his parents were often gone, and his grandfather would feed him with the chukhar partridges that he would catch with his hawks. When he got old enough, in 6th grade, he took up his grandfather’s tradition himself, catching a red-footed falcon, or jagalmai. Now he was a proudly experienced kuschu, or goshawker.
Eldiyar Tulumbek, 33 years old, Kara-Oy, Issyk Kul province.
Eldiyar learned how to hunt from his older brother. His father and grandfather weren’t interested in falconry, but his brother learned from his friends and passed it on. He caught his goshawk in the mountains with a net and a pigeon. It was young, he said, only a month or two old, but he didn’t know yet whether it was a male or female.
Argen Altynbek, 16 years old, Chon-Oruktu village, Issyk Kul province.
The young falconer Argen stood shyly with his 2-year old peregrine, wearing a t-shirt that read “Muslim Terrorist” and a denim glove that looked too big on his skinny arms. He wasn’t enthusiastic about being interviewed, speaking little Russian, but when Sheikh Zayed from Qatar came and asked if he could come to Chon-Oruktu to see how his peregrine flew, Argen nodded with confidence. Peregrines were relatively rare at the festival, and the boy must have known he was special.
Azim Shaibyrov, 9 years old, Bokonbaevo, Issyk Kul province.
Young Azim won first place in the falcon division with his juvenile peregrine, but it wasn’t his first brush with fame. His father, Talgar, is perhaps Kyrgyzstan’s most recognizable eagle hunter, and he and Azim even appeared together in the Daily Mail. With a predator in one hand and a trophy just as large in the other, Azim was bashful, uncomfortable with the burden of being the face of Kyrgyzstan’s falconry future. It was a good sign, though, to see that Talgar’s young prodigy worked well with both eagles and peregrines. Falconry in Kyrgyzstan would remain strong and diverse well into the next generation.