Exclusive: Mongolian Diary         

First World Cultural Heritage  study of falconry.  07/23/2010 Update

Lauren McGough is originally from Oklahoma and has been fascinated by eagle falconry since she was a teenager.  She has spent time flying eagles in Scotland when she was attending the University of Glasgow in 2006-07, and still frequently visits the country.  She first journeyed to Mongolia with her father when she was 17, and wanted to find a way to further immerse herself in the ancient Kazakh eagle culture still being practiced in Mongolia, virtually unchanged for the last 2000+ years.    Wikipedia note: **

With recommendations from fellow falconers and eagle experts, including Andrew Knowles-Brown , Lauren submitted a proposal to the Fulbright Foundation and was granted a scholarship to study and document this ancient culture, thereby assisting in its preservation.  Falconry is currently in midst of a long process of being classified by UNESCO as a “World Cultural Heritage”, meaning peoples and nations have recognized its world-wide practice, prevalence, longevity and importance to the human race.

The eagle falconers in this part of the world are known as “berkutchi”, derived from the Russian word for the large race of golden eagles found in that region, called “berkut”.
Sister Cities: Outside of Mongolia, the second greatest concentration of the variety of peoples from Mongolia are found in Denver, Colorado.  This makes Lauren's efforts to develop a better knowledge of this great culture even more relevant to our efforts with Eagle World in Brighton located just 25 minutes from downtown Denver. Denver's sister city is Ulan Bataar.

ABOVE: 9/26/09-REF in Mongolia!  Thanks to Lauren for hauling two of REF’s books, Fidget’s Freedom and Raptors: The Eagles, Hawks and Falcons of North America to falconer Narbek Khasim in Bayan-Olgii.  Mr. Khasim and REF’s Curator of Raptors Anne Price have corresponded on and off for the last couple of years.  When Anne found out that Mr. Khasim was familiar with the work of Vadim Gorbatov she made arrangements to get Gorbatov’s first work for an American audience in Narbek’s hands.  (Note, this was the “tail end” of Lauren’s 63 hour bus ride, so she was a bit bus-lagged!). 

Anne Price's story accompanies the notes and photos Lauren has been able to send to date.

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ABOVE: 12/16/09-Lauren is second from the right, with her second-year female golden eagle, “Alema”, the Kazakh word for the Milky Way, easily seen in this remote part of the world.  Alema was trapped in  mid-October after an exhausting 8-day odyssey in the wilderness involving horses, harsh conditions, and an unreliable Chinese motorbike.
In September 2009 Lauren began the arduous journey from Oklahoma to western Mongolia.  Just getting to the capital, Ulan Bataar, took over 24 hours of jet time, after which Lauren had to endure a 63 hour bus ride to Bayan-Olgii, the closest “city” to the Mongolian steppe near the Chinese border where she would spend the next 10 months.

She is living with a Kazakh eagle-hunting family, experiencing the entire process of trapping, manning (getting the bird accustomed to humans), and training a wild immature golden eagle.  Although hunting of all kinds, and eagle falconry, are traditionally male activities, Lauren has found acceptance among the men thanks to the universal camaraderie that all falconers share.  Several weeks of riding lessons back in Oklahoma and the fact that she is now a very decent horsewoman  have given her proper “steppe cred” as well!

From Lauren’s working journal: “On November 9th, we flew Alema free.  For that first week, she was flown with a 'make eagle', whereupon they caught three foxes (her mirroring the first eagle's movements and piling in second).  Then on November 20th, my eagle caught her first fox on her own. Since then, she's taken a total of six foxes and in all, I've seen 22 foxes caught by eagles this winter.  Here all the falconers fly passage (young raptors making their first migration) eagles, and to my astonishment, this year has been one of the best years they've had for foxes in at least a decade.”

“The way we fly is, of course, off horseback.  This falconry would not be feasible in any regard without horses. The eagle hunters take the high road -we go from mountaintop to mountaintop."

More from Lauren on Mongolian Diary Page Two

ABOVE:12/21/09-The Mongolian Steppe, where Lauren is living, training, and occasionally hunting.

 "Most often, we have a "scareboy", someone who takes the low road, lags behind us about a quarter of a mile, and loudly rides their horse in order to flush foxes our way. These foxes are somewhat diurnal and it doesn't take much to get them running.  But it is very rare that we get a close slip - our slips are far and the flights big.  Very often, the fox is just a small rust-colored spot scooting along in the distance.  The effect is almost like waiting-on flying, because the eagles cover such vast distances and can stoop hundreds of feet into a valley below.  The style my eagle has developed is to power out over the fox, keeping her height.  She'll even fly past the fox, then angle down, and finally teardrop stoop to the bottom. It makes for some really exciting flying.  These foxes are every bit as wily as the hares at home, too.  They sidestep, freeze, turn circles, and run in all sorts of unexpected directions.”


ABOVE:12/4/09-Lauren and Alema with their 3rd fox caught.
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The berkutchi fly with no telemetry and no scales.  They rely upon centuries-old techniques of checking the keel of the bird for muscle tone, and judging its readiness to fly by its response to food and the glove.  Lauren did manage to locate a scale, however, and her eagle flies at the astonishingly high weight (by US standards) of 10.5 pounds.


ABOVE:12/16/09. Tea in a Mongolian house after hunting. In addition to the two eagles on the chair, note the Pallas’ cat in the foreground next to the fox.  This small cat, which Lauren describes as a “snow leopard in miniature” flushed unexpectedly from the rocks on the mountain slope and was brought down by                        an experienced eagle.


More from Lauren’s Journal:
“I have to tell you guys about one flight we had - I could not believe it – I only wish I had been able to film it.  We had a fox running DOWN a mountainside, which almost never happens.  Just like hares, foxes know they've got the best chance of survival if they head up at high speed.  Anyway, this fox was running down, and the eagle, Ana (Kazakh for a "four-year old eagle"), was pumping hard after it, gaining some real speed.  They collided right at the edge of a cliff, and with all that momentum, the eagle FLEW with the adult fox in her talons.  She didn't glide at all.  At first I thought she had missed and was continuing on to give it another shot, but then I spied a writhing fox in her talons!  She flew across a narrow valley and then hit another mountainside where we were able to reach her.  The lifelong eagle hunters that I was with had never seen anything like it – nor had I.”


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ABOVE:12/19/09. Kukan (the master berkutchi under which Lauren is apprenticing) and his eagle “Ana” after the "flying fox" flight described in Lauren's journal above.

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Stay tuned for more posts from Mongolia.  Lauren must hike about 30 minutes up a windy, freezing  mountain slope to find a signal on her cell phone to send texts and photos, so by necessity, she’s only sending us the good stuff.--Anne Price

Those wishing to pursue more on this subject should visit Stephen Bodio's  web site.  Bodio has travelled and written on the eagle hunters of Mongolia along with numerous other natural history and falconry subjects.  Bodio is one of the best writers in this genre.

** Caution: Wikipedia references are included for  convenience only.  Always check  the information Wikipedia publishes with independent sources.

ABOVE:12/20/09. A day’s catch: Lauren’s eagle caught the fox on the right

More from Lauren on Mongolian Diary Page Two
Opening the window on this ancient tradition, Lauren's posts will let us take a look as well.

February 24th: We have just received more materials from Lauren- stay tuned as we get them organized and posted for you.


February 27th: Update-Lauren has sent some more fantastic photos of her hunting exploits in the wilds of Mongolia…follow along with us as she describes some of the tools the trade: Support us every time you shop with our exclusive Raptor Credit Card.
These hand-sewn coverings for the toes of the eagle are called “iyakcap” or “legcaps”.  As Lauren describes: “They are are sometimes used as protection from very cold temperatures, but primarily as protection from bites. They are really ingenious - I didn't use them until my eagle got a bad bite,  then one of the eaglehunter's daughters helped me sew a pair. Most eaglehunters in my area near the Chinese border use them,  but I'd never seen them before. I don't think they impact an eagle's success rate, either …they're made so the talons are completely exposed, and we've caught just as many foxes as when we didn't use them.”

More from Lauren on Mongolian Diary Page Two


We asked Lauren about the sturdy breed of pony/horse that the berkutchi use, a tough horse that can survive the horrendous cold, yet is sure-footed enough to run down a mountain, and not be spooked by an eagle’s flapping wings just behind its head:. Support us every time you shop with our exclusive Raptor Credit Card.

They get on the horse with the eagle, hold the reigns very tight, and control the horse whenever it attempts to bolt due to the eagle. I witnessed this often; it’s just down to repetition, day-in and day-out, I think. The primary problem is the bating eagle. The horse doesn't seem to mind one flying to the glove or flying after quarry as much as it hates one flapping continuously at its side. But, force a horse to accept it for several days hunting, and they seem to forget their fear of it.”

 “As far as the horses are concerned, the breed is simply called the "Mongolian horse". They are only 12 to 14 hands high. Some eaglehunters used horses that were significantly bigger, and were crossed with what my guides called "Russian horses". That I'm sure is an inaccurate name , but what exactly they are crossed with I don't know.

I did ask about how horses are taught to accept eagles. It seems that a large part is personality; they only take the most laid back of horses for hunting. Some are so relaxed as to not need hardly any conditioning (my first horse was an older one like this…they simply caught it from the free-roaming herd, put a saddle on, and I was ready to go!), and others never seem to accept the rouses, bates and flights of an eagle. To get a horse used to an eagle is just brute strength 'manning'.


Lauren and Alema caught their first fox on November 20th, 2009.  Afterwards, her host family and eagle mentor held a “ceshu”, or feast in her honor. They slaughtered a sheep for a dinner feast, all the neighbors and neighboring eaglehunters came to visit and brought candies and cookies, and then the vodka was brought out and they  toasted each other long into the night. Editors Note: This explains the fuzzy image. 

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As of mid-February, Lauren and her eagle have caught 10 foxes.  Right now Mongolia is experiencing an extremely severe winter, with conditions so cold that the weather is literally killing the livestock.  See more on this story, just click...   Lauren reports that the area where she most recently hunted has been down to -50C at night, with some days not getting above -30C.  Many days, the area looks like the arctic, and none but the hardiest of animals survives there.  It is so cold that the ceres (fleshy covering of the beak where the nasal openings are) and feet of the eagles actually turn orange at the end of the day.  The eagles further keep themselves warm by tucking their heads in their wings to shield themselves from the bitter cold, even while being carried by the hunters on horseback.

More from Lauren on Mongolian Diary Page Two


One animal well-adapted to these weather conditions is the Asiatic or Bactrian camel.  Lauren and a fellow hunter took a ride on these shaggy beasts, just for fun, and she writes: “I like these shaggy camels, I've got to say. I've even heard stories of people using the hump as a natural arm-rest for their eagle!”
Stay tuned for more incredible stories from Mongolia!

More from Lauren on Mongolian Diary Page Two


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