What you’ll find before you, dear reader, is something I’m barely willing to share: a half-baked thesis paper I wrote at grad school in 2013. The idea was to put it online and give it rich citations,”I, ”The.so that I could refer you to field notebooks ”Dennis, ”Kyrgyzstan.and interview recordings”Interview, ”On. instead of just “Works Cited.” I’ve also planned it to be annotated, so that it can act as a gateway into other aspects of Central Asian culture. These features are still waiting for my full attention – I hope to get them done within by fall 2014. If you take the time to read the whole thing, you’ll also see that the paper itself was never even adequately finished and could use a whole lot of revising, especially now that I’m digging up so much good material in Almaty. So it’s not much, but there’s so little to find about this tradition online that I figure it’s a good start. Enjoy!
The people of Central Asia have been capturing, training, and hunting with birds of prey for centuries. Petroglyphs from Kazakhstan suggest that the tradition dates to at least the first millennium; historical accounts of falconry in the court of Kublai Khan and its frequent mentions in the oral epics of later Turko-Mongolic peoples allow us to posit a continual historical practice that has remained unbroken until the modern day. Falconry can be found in other parts of the Eurasian landmass, from Central Europe to the Arabian peninsula to China and Korea, but there are reasons to identify the practices of Central Asia as unique and worthy of focused study. Perhaps the most visible distinction is the practice of hunting with golden eagles, which as an indigenous tradition is found nowhere else on earth. That this unique form of the tradition seems to be contiguous with a Turkic-speaking, pastoralist culture, and shows remarkable consistency in materials, knowledge, and practice throughout this sphere, gives credit to the claim that Central Asian falconry is a bounded historical and cultural phenomenon.
In the present day, only Turkmens, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz continue to maintain the tradition on a significant scale. Because of its political isolation since the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Turkmenistan presents serious obstacles for cultural study, and description of modern Turkmen falconry practice must unfortunately remain outside of the scope of this project. We can identify five other communities, separated by political divisions of the 20th century, who hunt with eagles and other birds of prey: The Kazakhs of Kazakhstan; the Kazakhs of Bayan-Olgii, Mongolia; the Kazakhs of the Saur and Altai ranges in northern Xinjiang, China; the Kyrgyz of Kyrgyzstan; and the Kyrgyz of Akqi, Xinjiang. Though these groups all share, of course, nearly identical cultural and linguistic roots, there exists today several reasons to view them as separate falconry communities. Traditional hunting federations, like the Salburun Federation in Kyrgyzstan or the Kyran Federation of Kazakhstan, organize membership and festivals on an ethno-territorial basis, with international cooperation rare. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, and Mongolia have different legal codes and government policies concerning birds of prey and cultural affairs. Lastly, the bureaucracy and cost of travelling across political borders prevents communication between these communities that are in fact geographically proximate – Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in the former Soviet Union know very little about the Kazakh and Kyrgyz communities next door.
In addition to these active Turkmen, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz communities, historical practice of falconry in Central Asia can be identified amongst the Qaraqalpaks, Uzbeks, and Bashkirs. David and Sue Richardson write that amongst the Qaraqalpaqs “hunting with hawks was certainly practiced by the wealthy and may have been much more widespread in the past.” Baron Aleksand’r Vasil’evich Kaul’bars, in his expeditionary travels along the Amu Darya in 1874, observed bird of prey kept inside Qaraqalpaq yurts, writing, “Sometimes in the kibitka lie lambs and kids, and in richer ones it is occasionally possible to find a hawk or even golden eagle, trained for hunting.” It seems that after subjugation by the Khivan Khans and the radical socioeconomic disruption of the Soviets, the Qaraqalpaq tradition has not survived to the modern day. Archival photosJohn Doe , How to Build a Website. (2014)from 1871-1872 show an Uzbek falconer on the streets of Tashkent, but little is known about the tradition in this community and it seems that it too has died out. Vladimir Basilov writes of Bashkir falconry in Nomads of Eurasia, but like the Uzbek tradition there is no corroborating evidence and likewise no reports of present-day practice.
Pushed out of existence in many communities by the radical lifestyle changes of the last century, Central Asian falconry has nevertheless shown itself to be remarkably resilient. Indeed, in the falconry communities of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Bayan-Olgii, the reevaluation of traditional culture that has come with the fall of socialism has made falconry more fashionable than ever. The practice and its participants have become powerful icons of national culture, found on paper money, carved into stone monuments and worked into films and music videos. Yet outside of Central Asia, the tradition and its vast foundation of traditional knowledge has until now been only shallowly understood. By working closely with falconers themselves and documenting their knowledge and practice on an intimate scale, this project aims to share this rich treasure with the rest of the world.
One of the common pitfalls of ethnographic documentation is the tendency to generalize about folk traditions that are in fact highly individualized and varied. The worst culprits are summarizing or introductory texts like encyclopedias, which for the sake of brevity cannot offer the nuance that every topic requires. The Atlas of Kazakhstan, for example, details the training process of an eagle, listing successive steps as if they are firmly ritualized: the newly-captured bird first is set on small game, and then it is set on a fox fur lur, and then it is sit on a live muzzled fox. While these are all common practices, one gets the impression that such a regimen is standardized and consistent. In fact, hunters prize their own personal training techniques and schedules, hoarding secret strategies, and they would be quick to tell you that training cannot be reduced to an ordered checklist. These kinds of generalizations get reproduced by second-hand scholars without exposure to the opinionated hunters themselves, and thus the literature on Central Asian falconry (however slight) is littered with vague assertions that obscure the complexity and diversity of a tradition practiced by hundreds.
Much of the variation in falconry practice can be attributed to the pedagogical methods by which it is maintained. The nomadic cultures of Central Asia were grounded in orality, and traditional knowledge was passed down through the generations through apprenticeship. The literacy of modern culture, on the other hand, enforces a uniformity to knowledge, with texts reproducing the exact same practices time after time. A three-hundred year old French cookbook, for example, may have created the same souffle countless times over the centuries, with very little variation. This concept of a recipe, and its suggestion of exact replication of information, would be foreign to oral societies. Kazakh have no recipes; in fact, improvisation is expected and individualization is the norm. A Kazakh hunter is quite like a Kazakh cook. He has no textbook to learn his craft, but gathers his knowledge from questioning and observation, adapting what he’s learned into his own idiosyncratic approach.
The linear transmission of knowledge through dynastic lineages, from grandfather to father to son, also ensures an insularity to each hunter’s falconry practice. Different families are sure to have techniques all their own, and thus the tradition cannot be seen as a hegemonic whole, consistent across borders. Rather, there are islands of knowledge, separated by secrecy and continual improvisation, and to make generalizations is to not see the seas between them. Take the instance of cleaning the eagle’s beak. In the wild, an eagle will clean the crumbs of its prey from its beak with the aid of a rock or a plant. In captivity, these natural options are unavailable, and hunters are forced to improvise. After feeding meat to their eagles, a family in Nura, Kazakhstan will offer their hand to the birds, the fingers pressed together and the hand slightly cupped, and the birds will graciously rub their beaks against this new tool. Subjects in Kyrgyzstan had never heard of such a technique. They were more inclined to take their leather gloves and clean the beaks themselves. Hunters are often surprised to learn of the habits of others in their profession, and would no doubt be just as surprised to learn what is written as dogma in certain texts.
The best solution to this problem of describing a varied tradition is to be clear about one’s sources, and if citing a generalized opinion, to make it candidly clear. For the purposes of this project, we have worked closely with only a handful of hunters, and they have enthusiastically given their approval to be cited for their individual understandings of the tradition. Revealing the true breadth of the practice would be a difficult task. Hundreds of hunters from across four countries would have to be interviewed and observed. An in-depth examination of one family’s practice, or one community’s practice, provides for a narrower scope but a significantly deeper portrait. What one learns from these case studies can then be compared to what’s been shared elsewhere, but we must always remember that these comparisons cannot result in summations. They are only glimpses of a multifaceted body of knowledge, something that is impossible to fully describe.
The man whose knowledge of falconry is the foundation of this study is a Kyrgyz elder named Sary Satylganov. Sary-ata was born on December 24, 1929, and he has been capturing, training, and hunting with birds of prey for seventy years, since he first learned it from his father at age thirteen. He was born and raised in a small aul called Ak Say Sovkhoz, a collective farm community established by the Soviets on the south shore of Lake Yssyk-Köl, and he still lives there with his grandchildren. The next town over in Tong Raion, Bokonbaevo, is widely considered the center of the falconry tradition in Kyrgyzstan. Sary-ata is often spoken of as a living treasure, an encyclopedia of hunting knowledge, and he is seen as the most respected hunter in all of Tong Raion, if not all of Kyrgyzstan. When Kyrgyz falconers gather in one place, for a festival or a hunt, Sary-ata is quickly surrounded by a crowd of questioners. They show the old man their birds, asking for his opinion of their hunting qualities. He receives visitors often as well; they come when their birds are sick or performing poorly during the hunt, pleading with him for advice. He is seen by those in the falconry community as an absolute authority, one of the last “true” hunters. He is the optimal candidate for an in-depth documentation of an individual Central Asian falconry practice.
Several of Sary-ata’s apprentices, and those in the Tong Raion falconry community, aided the project with formal interviews and provide occasional supporting information and/or comparative nuance. Almaz Akunov, the leader of the Salburun Hunting Federation, introduced us to Sary-ata and is himself an accomplished hunter and a scholar of Kyrgyz falconry history and lore. Sary-ata’s grandson Rustam Satylganov is a confident and experienced young man, likely the key heir to his family’s heritage of falconry knowledge. At age twenty six, Ruslan Kubat Uulu is already a widely-recognized falconer and a voracious apprentice of Sary-ata’s; he has three eagles and a passion for the sport that is remarkable. His neighbor, Talgar Shaibyrov, is the public face of falconry in Kyrgyzstan. Talgar’s face is plastered on billboards and BBC stories, and through his connections with the major tourist agency in town he is the unofficial eagle ambassador to foreigners and journalists. All men are experienced and knowledgeable hunters, with their own unique approaches and beliefs, but Sary-ata is their guide and intellectual fountainhead. By documenting Sary-ata’s practice, with his apprenticeship network as invaluable context, we can aim for a fair and accurate case study of Central Asian falconry. It will be an expression of both individual and communal practice, but always grounded in the personal and not the abstract.
The details of Sary-ata’s falconry practice were collected during several trips to Tong Raion from October 2010 to July 2011. Formal interviews were conducted in Kyrgyz, with ad hoc translations provided by a research assistant, Abai Aitikulov. Recordings and transcriptions of these interviews provide a core resource for the project. Hundreds of photographs were also taken, and reflective writings on fieldwork were shared on a website for the project, Keen on Kyrgyzstan. Other material was collected in Bishkek: the national film studio Kyrgyzfilm generously provided a handful of documentary films, and the National Library of Kyrgyzstan, despite its arcane system of cataloguing, was a handy resource for texts on the subject. Interviews with Mairamkul Asanaliev, a leader of a competing falconry federation, Sanat-Kumay, provided important context and contrast. In addition to drawing on this work in the north of Kyrgyzstan, the study will also look at brief expeditions to the southern oblasts of Osh and Batken, the city of Jergatol in Tajikistan, and the villages of Nura and Aksu-Ayuly in Kazakhstan.
The first part of the project is documentary in nature. Unfortunately, neither the traditional knowledge of falconry or the tradition’s evolution have been given as much attention in Western scholarship as they deserve. G.N. Simakov, a Soviet ethnographer, is the only academic to have published a full manuscript on the subject of Central Asian falconry, yet his work remains inaccessible, clouded by Soviet methodologies and unavailable in English besides. Central Asian scholars like Bagdat Muptekekyzy and B. Khinayat have done respectable work, but it too remains only in the Russian language, unavailable to most international scholars. These works document the technologies of the tradition well, but provide no insight into its sociological significance or modern iterations. The English-language literature, whether documentary or analytical, is almost non-existent beyond a few short articles, some works of travel literature and a handful of guidebooks. One Western scholar, Svetlana Jacquesson, has written a fantastic dissertation focusing especially on Kyrgyz falconry, but unfortunately it’s only available in French. This work aims to be the first in English-language scholarship to systematically describe traditional knowledge and practices of falconry of Central Asia. This knowledge will be broken down into several modules, which frequently overlap: raptor identification, raptor capture, manning, training, care, hunting, and equipment making. As stated before, emphasis will be given to first-hand sources from fieldwork, but when available, comparative information will be given from other texts. Referencing these supplementary resources not only provides a fuller picture of our falconry knowledge archipelago, but it helps to liberate some information that is unavailable to those who can’t read Central Asian languages.
The second part of the project aims to analyze the sociological and political aspects of a modern falconry practice that is being rapidly transformed by the economic forces of globalization and discourses of “modernizing” and “revitalizing” the tradition through competitions and festivals. The actual social organization of Central Asian falconers has never been described, in English or otherwise. Examining the intersections of traditional knowledge and evolving practices will unite these two sections together to provide a thorough understanding of Central Asian falconry in its present state.
The totality of Central Asian falconry knowledge is vast and broad, so an attempt to document it should have some organizing principle, lest one get lost in the sheer size of it. The most logical approach is chronological. There is a timeline that, though admittedly generalized, can be safely applied to any falconry practice. Without a bird, of course, the practice is nothing, so we can begin with bird identification: a professional falconer must first learn the types of raptors that are suitable for hunting, become familiar with their physiologies and ecologies, and determine the method of capture that best suits their behavior. The hunter is then ready to procure a bird, whether from the nest, from a trap, from a friend, or from a breeder. After the bird is acquired, there is an initial process of “manning” the animal, acclimating it to human presence and control. Next comes the daily task of caring for the raptor. Coterminous with this, and logically leading from the manning stage, is the process of training the bird for the hunt. With the bird well-trained, the hunt itself becomes the last chain in our chronology of the practice, the motivation, of course, for the entire enterprise. There are admittedly some elements of the tradition that don’t fit neatly into a timeline, like the manufacturing of equipment, for example, and these will be looked at later.
At the core of the tradition is a keen understanding of the birds themselves, organized in a complex of ornithological knowledge that deserves a study all its own. Indeed, Svetlana Jacquesson, in a dissertation titled “Hunting with Birds in Central Asia: Knowledge and Practices”, attempted to do just that, describing this knowledge of raptors as an ethnoscience. Her study is thorough and extensive, and as she was able to work with more falconers in Central Asia than in the current project, her work is a valuable companion, filling out a more complete picture of the various raptor taxonomies of the region.
The practice of hunting with golden eagles in Central Asia has become especially prestigious and well-known. In fact, most Western portrayals of the tradition mention only the eagles. Yet other birds of prey are frequently used as well. This seems to be especially true in Kyrgyzstan; during fieldwork in Mongolia and Kazakhstan, other raptors were seldom seen, but in Kyrgyzstan the kushchu [hunter with hawks] was a common presence. According to Sary-ata, the Kyrgyz hunt with three broad categories of hunting birds – bürküt, kush, and itelgi. In Western ornithology and taxonomy, these would be identified as golden eagles, goshawks, and falcons. Yet Linnaean taxonomy cannot be so neatly applied, for the Kyrgyz use each of these only as headers, with several subtypes beneath them. For example, Sary-ata was able to list nineteen kinds of bürküt, none of which to our knowledge have any Western taxonomic correlates. The differences in subtypes are often based on phenotypic indicators, like a mark on the tongue or the shade of the eyes. Other times habitat plays an identifying role, such as an eagle that was once mentioned, said to live only near glaciers.
When one looks for Western correlates to kush and itelgi types, it becomes clear that Sary-ata’s system of bird categorization is conceptually quite different. Kush, which itself can be identified as a Northern goshawk, is associated with other birds like the kyrgiy (Eurasian sparrowhawk), turumtay (merlin), and bakachy (osprey). In Western taxonomy, these birds share only the same order, falconiformes, but differ greatly in family and genus. A similar “confusion” can be seen amongst the itelgis. It could be that Western taxonomy relies more on genetic and evolutionary evidence, while Kyrgyz taxonomies take a more descriptive approach.
We sat down with Sary-ata with pen and paper and together charted out his personal understanding of Kyrgyz raptor terminology. He said that he had received this information mostly from his father, who was a falconer himself, and it had been passed down through the generations from his hunter-ancestors. Sary-ata would assert at times that the Kyrgyz knew forty types of bürküt, boasting that this number was superior to that of the Kazakhs. In working together, he was able to give nineteen types of bürküt, but it cannot be said whether this it out of ignorance, secrecy, or forgetfulness. He was initially suspicious of divulging his schema, concerned with how it might be abused or misattributed. He did decide to offer us assistance, and we can only assume that he brought forth his fullest understanding of the subject matter. At age 81, he was understandably forgetful; we would often be sitting around the dastorkhan [tablecloth] for dinner when his eyes would light up and he would remark “Oh, I’ve remembered one more.” Like any account of personal knowledge, then, this account cannot claim to be exhaustive; it is merely the best possible effort.
Raptor types were ordered by Sary-ata by their prestige. The best hunting birds, incidentally, were often the rarest. When he caught a tuygun, the rarest and most respected of all kush, on the week of his birthday, he considered it an auspicious gift from god. In all his decades of hunting, he said, he had seen one only once before. In addition to listing those birds in the categories of bürküt, kush, and itelgi, Sary-ata listed at our request the so-called zhaman bürküts as well, the “bad eagles” that were known of by Kyrgyz but not considered suitable hunting birds. A zhaman bürküt can be contrasted with a kyraan bürküt. Kyraan is a word widely used for praising a bird of prey. Its root is “kyr”, which means “edge”, and from there we get the verb “kyru”, meaning “to shave”, “to scrape,” and by extension, “to destroy.” This is how the word gets applied to eagles – in their ability to destroy their prey. The word kyran’s association with birds of prey is so strong that it has taken on new meanings, so that it now suggests “keen vision” as well.
In Sary-Ata’s raptor chart, which you can see in this Google Doc here, the left column lists Kyrgyz raptor schemata according to Sary-Alta’s consultation. On the right are Western correlates to the species identified by Sary-ata, according to the few resources that have been available. Interestingly, most texts do not attempt translation of these terms, whether into Russian or otherwise. It is as if to acknowledge that such conversion would be misleading or imprecise – it is best to just leave them as they are. Where possible, literal translations of the descriptive names have been provided, for the bird’s characteristics are sometimes suggested by the words used to name them.
In some cases, birds of the same species are given different names based on gender. Male Northern goshawks, for example, are called kush, while females are called chüylü. Female bürküts are almost always preferred over males due to their greater size and hunting ability, but interestingly they do not receive a special name. They are referred to simply as urgaachy bürküt, with the word urgaachy being used to describe females of any animal species.
Identifying captured birds according to their Western names would be easy for the most casual birdwatchers, but to identify them according to their Kyrgyz classification is a skill possessed by only a select few. This is one of the roles that Sary-ata played for the Tong Raion falconry community – he was a greatly respected “bird reader”, as we have called it. To read a bird is to look at a bird’s beak, feathers, eyes, and feet, to feel its weight on your arm and to pinch the fat on its calves. A talented bird reader like Sary-ata can tell you the type, age, gender, and health of a bird after a quick appraisal. This is a good example of knowledge that cannot just be received through any brief apprenticeship. Rather, the intuition and nuance of such a practice can only be learned through decades of capturing, handling, and observing different raptors.
When reading an eagle, one of the first things that Sary-ata will look at is the birds feet. There one can find that each digit is covered in a series of scales. The scales on the top of each digit, called “dorsal scutella” in avian external anatomy, grow large as they greet the talon, and by counting the number of large dorsal scutella one can determine the quality of a bürküt – four is normal, five is optimal. In Kazakh, these large scales have been called tas, which means stone. To the uninitiated, it can be difficult to determine what is just a scale and what is large enough to be a tas, but a professional bürkütchü can somehow make the differentiation.
Another key site for bird reading is the tail. This is the case for all raptors, but especially for bürküts. The amount of white tail feathers can often reveal the approximate age of a golden eagle, because golden eagles mostly shed them by the age of five. The patterns of the feathers can also be read for signs. In the case of Sary-ata’s tuygun, he was tipped off to its type by markings on the tail feathers that he said resembled goat’s hooves. Three stripes of white on the wings contained brown spots that were said to resemble letters. This sounded familiar; a Kazakh bürkïtshi in Bayan-Olgii, Mongolia had explained that Kazakhs considered the feathers of the Eurasian eagle-owl to be sacred in part because their patterns were said to resemble Quranic script. Such colorful comparisons seem to be common in raptor identification. One type of bürküt is called muz murut, or “ice moustache”, apparently due to some grey feathering around its mouth.
Divining the qualities of a good eagle is such a highly-respected skill that it is even enshrined in Kazakh poetry. Abai Kunanbaev, the iconic “father of Kazakh poetry”, was also a bürkïtshi, and he wrote a piece called Bürkit Syny, or “Test of a Golden Eagle,” that in sixteen lines describes the most desirable physical features of a kyran bürkit. It’s legs are taltaq, or spread apart, as if bowlegged; it’s tongue is black; it’s beak is blue, becoming flat as it reaches the head. Kunanbaev writes that the eagle should have “deep-seated eyes, an upturned brow/ Wide shoulders, thick thighs, and a puffed-up chest.” If you find such a bird, your horse will forever be tied with pelts of captured prey, and “the blood on your saddle straps will never dry.”
Part of being a true bürkïtshi is to share in Kunanbaev’s vision, to be able to read a bird like a poem and see the signs of promise.
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.
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.
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.
We proceed forward in time, past the jubilant celebrations and rituals of the hunter’s first return to home, raptor in hand, and outline the first night, the first weeks, that crucial time when a wild bird is brought into a human world. Birds of prey are not pets, and they are not domesticated creatures. They are bold predators, used to being at the top of their food chain, and they initially resist the control of others. They have no way to escape, however. A leather hood, or tomogo, is fit to their head as soon as possible to deprive them of their vision, their most developed sense. Leather straps, or baltyr boo, are wrapped around the legs and connected to a kind of leash, called a uzun boo, that is secured to an anchor – a wooden stand called a tuur or a metal weight or anything else suitably heavy. Some birds are more perturbed by their captivity than others, and initially flap their wings and try to escape. Others seem calm by nature and do not fear the presence of man.
We were lucky enough to be visiting Sary-ata the second night after he captured his auspicious tuygun, and he told us how he adapted the bird to his presence. A freshly caught bird will not take meat from his new master – it is nervous and suspicious, and may still be full from an earlier meal. The hunter’s task, then, is to wear it down until starvation and exhaustion force it into subservience. Sary-ata spent the first night awake with his bird, poking it with his fingers to keep it awake. Sometimes he lay down nearby and used a stick to do the job. It was not all cruelty, though, as he talked to the bird and stroked its feathers, getting it used to his presence. When we were in the room, it still refused to eat. When we left, it finally took meat from its master’s hands, establishing the terms of their relationship. Though the hunters often dote on their birds, stroking their feathers or kissing their heads, it is hard to say the feelings are mutual. The bird of prey learns to see the human as a reliable source of food, and later, as a valuable hunting partner. It is a bond built of pragmatism and not affection.
Kazakhs are known to use other methods to wear the bird down. One hunter in Bayan-Ölgii suggested keeping an eagle by a river at night, so that the chill of the passing water would break the bird down. A more common technique is to set the eagle on a slack rope tied between two posts. The eagle is unable to keep its balance and flaps its wings to try to stay upright, only to flip over. The continuous struggle will wear the bird down. The rope, John Wardell suggests, is sometimes graduated over time to a larger size.John Wilfordd Wardell, In the Kirghiz Steppes. (1961) Yet there are also tales of Kazakhs keeping the eagles in their yurts the first night, singing them songs and sweetly strumming their dombyra, a two-stringed long-necked lute. Seemingly harsh treatment, to break the bird down, is balanced with tender care, to win them back.
Though falconry brings to mind the bird on the glove and the thrill of the hunt, its daily practice is altogether less thrilling. The bird sits in the yard or in a shed, preening its feathers, defecating at random, waiting to be fed. Yet it is in this downtime that the fate of a hunt may be determined. A hunting bird must be kept at a precise weight – too heavy, and the bird will be lazy and clumsy in flight, too light and the bird will be too irritable, or be so weak it might die. Achieving this balance of the proper “flying weight” is something that can only be learned through experience and intuition. When asked to name the most challenging element of the tradition to learn, Central Asian falconers consistently answer that weight-maintenance and feeding are the trickiest to master.
Falconers in the West certainly have an easier task, as they use scales to precisely measure the weight of the birds and their food. Central Asian nomads had no such technology, relying only on physical evaluation and developed intuition, and to this day scales are never used. Sary-ata’s ability to “read” a bird for identification has been noted, but he has also developed a keen ability to read a bird for its proper weight. He will take a bird on his arm and lift it up and down, trying to sense its weight relative to its size. He will run pinch a bird at the top of its leg, feeling for the density of fat or muscle. He will look at the heft of the breast and the birds overall posture, and from these visible cues he will make his evaluation. This is a science that cannot be taught, and many who come to him for help come to him with birds that are underweight, close to death. To bring them to health, he gives precise dietary recommendations.
The diet itself, of course, is just as hard to regulate. It is not just a matter of how much meat, but what kind and how it is prepared. Almost all Central Asian falconers will tell you that it is important for meat to be drained of it’s blood – ak zhem, it’s then called, or “white fodder” (the phrase is also used, by analogy, to refer to pruney fingers, drained of their moisture.) The explanations for this practice are varied. Some say that the blood will make the bird too irritable; some have said that the blood will make the bird too lazy. Others explain that it’s simply a way of filling the bird up and controlling its appetite without adding too many calories – kind of like a diet food. Sheep lung is especially common for this purpose. The hunter inflates the lung like a balloon and fills it with water, washing it out until it’s optimally pale. The eagles love it apparently, but it won’t make them gain too much weight.
Birds of prey are almost exclusively carnivorous, and it can be a chore in itself keeping a steady supply of meat for fodder. Like the case of catching raptor bait, a hunter must hunt for the bird’s food before he can hunt with the bird. Sary-ata and his grandsons, then, were not just master falconers but master trappers and riflemen as well. Rustam took us on a tour through the nearby hills, showing us the metal traps he had deftly laid before snowfall, so that by the morning after they were hidden from sight. Yet with a powerful memory he recalled their exact locations, guiding us around them with understated confidence. In the fresh snow he could recognize any kind of track, and from its depth and direction he could read the behavior of the animal. Knowing the habits of his prey, he would move the traps to where they were most likely to go. Rabbits, foxes, marmots and badgers could be caught this way, all excellent food for their eagle. He was a fine shot, but his cousin Ulan was the true heir to his grandfather’s steady aim. Riding his Soviet Zhiguli through an empty riverbed, he would stop the car without explanation and jump out with his gun, shooting before anyone could question him. Down the hillside, out of nowhere, a limp rabbit would tumble in our direction.
Other animals made for good food as well. When we awoke one morning with a mouse in our pillowcase, Sary-ata commented that it would be particularly good food for his sick falcon, offering no explanation but the wisdom of generations. The mouse got away, but chicken meat was apparently a suitable replacement. Horse meat is considered the most powerful of foods, so much that pregnant women are urged not to eat it, but sick and sniffling American researchers are urged to do the opposite. Therefore when a horse is slaughtered at a toi, or celebration, it is always encouraged to save some of its meat for the local falconer and his eagle. Some of the horse’s symbolic power, it is thought, might be transferred to the bird.
Of course, with proper feeding such an integral part of the practice, mealtime can have the feel of a ritual. It can be one of the most intimate moments of this relationship between two creatures. Sary-ata was fond of feeding his birds by hand, taking a dead sparrow, for example, and stripping its feathers and tearing it into pieces to hand before his tuygun. His Kyrgyz taigans, a kind of sighthound related to the Borzoi, would sometimes accompany him or his grandsons on their hunts, so he made a point of having them around when his hawk was fed. That way, he explained, the bird would get used to their presence, and learn to not strike out at them in defense of their food. The birds could get impatient during feeding time and get grabby with their talons; he let us know that a special trick of his was to tie a string between their legs to act as a hobble, so that the bird would be eventually conditioned to not lash out. Another element of the feeding ritual that we mentioned before was the beak cleaning. Sary-ata was fond of pinching the scraps off his birds beaks with his own thumb and forefinger. Others would use their gloves, but it seemed that Sary-ata, after so many years around birds, felt an effortless comfort around them, and his physical touch was assured and controlling.
The Kazakhs that we met in Bayan-Olgii nearly all used a wooden dish, called a saptayaq, as an intermediary. The only explanation that’s been offered is that feeding from the hand might lead to bad habits, with the eager raptor making a dangerous connection between fingers and meat. We’ve never heard, however, of a hunter ever being seriously injured this way. The bowl may also provide a convenient vessel for cutting up and washing the meat; using a saptayaq means a quick and easy clean-up. If the use of such a dish once existed among the Kyrgyz, it has since disappeared. In modern practice, the saptayaq seems to be found only among the Bayan-Olgii Kazakhs.
One feeding ritual that should be mentioned is the practice of spitting on the raptor’s food. Informants have explained that by tasting its master’s saliva, the birds form a closer bond to their providers. Spitting on the meat is likened to a mother bird spitting up digested food for her young birds. As far as we know, no falconer has yet attempted chewing and regurgitating their bird’s meals.
In the wild, raptors will regularly consume bits of fur, plant matter, bones, and feathers. This indigestible material is then regurgitated as a pellet, called a “casting” by falconers because it is cast out of the gullet. In captivity, the diet of cleaned meat prevents such a buildup, but because occasional cleansing of the stomach is necessary for the bird’s digestion, Central Asian hunters have developed a man-made casting, called a qoya in Kazakh. The qoya can be made of felt and wood, or tightly-woven cat fur. About the size of a thumb, the qoya is force-fed to the bird and regurgitated hours later, complete with what’s been scoured from the stomach. Josef Hiebeler suggests that such a technique is used not just as a good habit of regular care, but to lower the weight of a bird before a hunt.
Another natural cycle for raptors is moulting, the periodic shedding of feathers. During the summer months, halfway through the long interim between hunting seasons, hunting birds put on weight and change their clothes. Sary-ata recommended a special spa treatment to ease this transformation, bathing the birds on the hottest of days and carefully washing their new feathers. Cleaning the birds seems to otherwise happen only before they make special appearances at festivals or on camera. Farkhat Musaev would freshen up his eagle by taking water into his mouth and spraying it at the bird’s feathers.
Another way to freshen up a raptor for the hunt, you could say, is to sharpen the bird’s talons. If this didn’t give the bird enough of an advantage, there are cases of sharp prosthetics being made to fit over the talons. Talons can occasionally be bitten off by a defensive wolf, so some hunters have fashioned metal replacements, making a kind of cyborg bird. A famous Kazakh eagle was called Temir Bulak, or iron talon, after its trademark enhancement.
One of the most important considerations when caring for a raptor is its housing, of course. This is widely varied in practice. In Bayan-Olgii, where pastoral nomadism still prevails, permanent structures were out of the question and eagles were kept outside in the open air, tethered to a stake or a stand. In times past, or perhaps in winters, they’ve been known to be kept inside the yurt. Sary-Ata often kept his goshawks indoors, with a tarp below them to protect the flooring, sometimes dedicating an entire room to the bird. When he acquired an eagle, Sary-Ata kept it in a fenced-off portion of a tool shed. Both Talgar Shaybyrov and Kubat Ruslan Uulu had constructed wood and wire-mesh shacks, or mews in the parlance of falconry, in which they housed their beloved eagles.
One last element of raptor care in Central Asia that is necessary to mention, but deserves further study, is the treatment of disease. Veterinary medicine for birds of prey has become quite advanced in the West, and treating basic illnesses or wounds suffered in the hunt is an integral part of ensuring the wellbeing of your bird. Yet we were unable to collect much information on this aspect of the practice in the field. We only encountered one sick goshawk; no specific disease was mentioned, and when a special treatment of chicken meat did not help the bird regain its strength, it soon died.
The difference between a well-trained bird and a poorly-trained one could be easily during the regular hunting festivals we attended. A poorly-trained bird was nervous and petulant, flapping its wings constantly and trying to fly away. When thrown at prey, they would lazily soar in the wrong direction, sometimes alighting on the bandstand. A well-trained bird, on the other hand, was a marvel to behold. They were calm and dignified, and when taking after prey they had a speed and purpose that was missing from others. The difference, quite often, was the experience and dedication of the hunter. Having a well-trained bird took a lot of repetitive conditioning and frequent outings to hunt. Yet just what a training regimen should consist of was often contested.
In its most generalized form, the training process consists of a bird flying at a target on command, with meat as its motivator, the distances gradually increasing from short hops to whole fields. It begins at the closest proximity, with the bird eating from the hunter’s hand. Next, it might be beckoned to hop onto the trainer’s arm from a few feet away. As the distances grow, the method used to lure the bird might change. Calling a goshawk across his courtyard, Sary-Ata had his grandson drag half a rabbit carcass through the dirt with a rope tied around it. At the Zhety-Kazyna center in Kazakhstan, hunters dragged a fox that had been dismantled and sewn together again like Frankenstein’s monster; between its head and its tail was a stuffed cylinder covered in some kind of brown fur. In another training exercise, a large chunk of meat was simply held up by a gauntleted hunter from fifty yards away, and the eagle gracefully soared to his hand.
All of this hard work, of snatching birds from cliffside nests and staying up all night to wear them down and trapping their food and diligently shaping their behavior, is ultimately in the pursuit of one reward above all: the thrill of the hunt. The hunt is a bonding experience, a visual spectacle, and an escape from the drudgeries of domestic life into the bosom of nature. Perhaps least of all it is an economic activity, a way to secure furs for barter or trade. A fine fox fur is still a widely-admired trophy, but for the most part it remains simply that: a symbol of conquest valued more for its bragging rights than for its price tag. Moreover, the catch is rarely eaten; common catches like foxes or badgers are not so pleasing to the human palate.
In centuries past, the hunt was an activity that might occupy the whole community. The group hunt, called salbürün, could go on for days, with hunters building huts in the snow to wait until the next days chase. Hunting season began with the first fall of snow in the winter, a time called sonar when the coats of the prey had begun to thicken and their tracks could be easily seen. Riding on horseback, hunters would brag about the amount of blood that had dried on their saddles. When they would come back to their yurts, the first elder they would see would be given part of the catch in a display of generosity and respect.
Much has changed from these romantic days of yore. In Bayan-Olgii, Kazakhs still often hunt on horseback, but in Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan they are more likely to head to the mountains in a foreign SUV. Eagles have been put in the trunks of Soviet Ladas or in the sidecars of motorcycles. Yet the pure experience of the hunt can be said to have changed very little. The mountains, the birds, and the prey remain the same, and even the equipment would be familiar to a medieval hunter. Mostly it is just material ornamentation that has changed: the hide coats have become polo shirts, and there are cell phones in every pocket. The feelings, the strategies, and yelps and hollers are all immutable.
A foundational part of hunting knowledge is an intimate understanding of one’s local geography and ecology. When we went for a hunt in the hills behind Bokonbaevo with Ruslan, he knew exactly where the foxes were breeding and where they go to drink. He knew the right ridges and hilltops that would provide the proper vantage points, and he knew the contours of the terrain, so he could predict the escape route of his prey. A hunter should also have an understanding of the prey population, so that they could sufficiently replenish. Conservation was a basic assumption.
It can be said that this kind of knowledge is not limited to those who keep their own birds, for every hunt involves helpers, and even if they aren’t falconers themselves they know a good deal about the hunt and its strategies.
Hunting with birds of prey involves a basic set of equipment that is usually fashioned by hand by the hunter himself. Perhaps the most iconic item is the tomogo, a leather hood made to fit comfortably over the bird’s eyes. At the top of the tomogo is usually some kind of a tassle, so that the hunter can hold it in his teeth if his hands are full. The tomogos are carved out of black leather using aluminum stencils, then adjusted carefully to fit the precise shape and size of the bird’s head. If it is too small, they bird will grow irritable and it may even damage its sight; if it is too big, the bird will continually try to shake it off. Sary-Ata showed that after he fit a new tomogo, he would check the inside to see if any discharge from the eyes was on the leather. In that case, he would know for sure that it would have to be made bigger.
The glove or gauntlet is another important piece of equipment. Especially when handling an eagle, whose huge, sharp talons can cause some serious damage, it is important to protect the forearm. Unlike Western falconry gloves, which are often fitted snug to the hand or with individual fingers, Central Asian gloves are usually heavy, stiff, and loosely fitting. The leather they are made out of is usually tan.