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Lauren McGough, Falconer and Anthropologist

Mokala comes to Lauren's glove.

What is falconry?
Falconry is the art and science of hunting wild quarry with a trained bird of prey, often the raptor’s native prey in its native habitat.

What aptitudes does a person need to be a falconer?
One of my favorite sayings I learned in Mongolia was “an eagle is like a mirror,” meaning eagles bring out your true nature and accentuate it, whether good or bad. A Mongolian eagle master would tell you that anyone can become a falconer—and that the eagle doesn’t care whether you are a prince or a pauper. But only a few people have the passion and patience to truly do well as a falconer.

What falconry has taught me more than anything is patience and perseverance. Most mistakes I’ve made have been because I wasn’t patient enough with my eagle. If you can develop those two qualities, your communication will improve as well. In many ways, falconry is a conversation between you and your eagle. You have to always be listening.

Tell us about eagles in falconry.
Eagle falconry is perhaps the oldest form of falconry. Eagles are incredible—they are 10 lbs of sinew and power. They can pick up tremendous speed skimming across the ground, or swooping from thousands of feet overhead. Golden eagles are one of the world’s most successful predators. They can be found from Mexico to the Arctic, from North Africa, across Europe and deep into Siberia and China. They are extraordinarily adaptable.

I’ve flown eagles for 15 years now, and they still blow me away. Almost every time I fly, they surprise me in some new way. Of course, there is the strong tradition of eagle falconry in Central Asia, but they are flown in Europe by a small group of passionate people, and here in the US and Mexico there are a handful of eagle devotees.

Mokala, a Verreaux's eagle, enjoys juicy jackrabbit tidbits at the end of the day.

Are falconers taming birds of prey?
We only encourage their natural instincts—flying and hunting. If they see you as an ally in the hunt, you can start to build an incredible bond with a wild animal. One thing I really enjoy about falconry is it is a temporary bond, which makes you appreciate it all the more. Whether it is eagles in Mongolia or red-tailed hawks in the US, the time a wild raptor spends with a falconer is often just a short detour in her long life. (Fun fact: In falconry, raptors are referred to as “she” by default—even if the bird is male.) Though it is a difficult thing, I enjoy releasing my hawk or eagle after a few years together. I borrowed some time with a wild raptor, and now she can go back on her way, migrating and mating and doing whatever she pleases. This is also what I enjoy about the rehab work I do, teaching golden eagles how to hunt. After a few years gaining fitness and confidence in hunting with me, these eagles go back to their wild lives. 

You're the first western woman to have been trained by nomadic Mongolian falconers to hunt with eagles on horseback, a culturally male tradition. How did you learn about them, and gain access to their world?
When I was a kid, I read a book called A Rage for Falcons, written by a falconer, Steve Bodio, in the local library. I instantly wanted to become a falconer after reading it and wrote Steve a letter. I’ll be darned if he didn’t write me back, and soon after sent me a manuscript for his forthcoming book called Eagle Dreams, which was about his journey to Mongolia to experience the eagle culture there. I became a licensed falconer at 14. I went to Mongolia when I was 17 (all thanks to my wonderful Dad, who went with me) and was able to hire a guide through Steve’s contacts. After college (undergrad), I was very fortunate to win a Fulbright Scholarship to live in Mongolia for a year. I wanted to apprentice myself to the eagle masters there, and trap and train my own golden eagle just as they do—with the goal to bring that knowledge back here to the US.

With globalization and modernization, fewer and fewer kids are becoming eagle falconers in Mongolia. You can’t blame them—a job in the city has a lot more prospects than life as a nomadic herder. To fly eagles in the Altai mountains, you must live as a herder. That’s the only way you are attuned to the mountains and foxes and horses needed to make the tradition possible. When I showed up, I think they were just happy to help pass on their tradition to anyone who was interested. I was a little unorthodox, but I was a willing student who loved eagles, and I think that goes a long way.

What did the women of the tribe think of you?
When I first went to Mongolia, I set out to find a family of eagle hunters who I could live with an apprentice under. I bonded right away with an older eagleman who had three daughters my age. I really enjoyed that I could ride out and hunt with the men, and then come home and hang out with daughters who were like me. In anthropology there is a saying that anthropologists doing fieldwork occupy the “third gender.” We’re so strange that we aren’t perceived as men or women in terms of their culture. That’s very much what I felt like. During times of ritual I was sometimes placed with the men, and other times with the women. I know everyone was wary of me to start, but in the end I felt very accepted by the families.

What's special about the Mongolian eagle masters?
That region—the Altai mountains—is arguably the very cradle of falconry. That is where the raptor–human relationship was first born and flourished. It’s an interesting landscape. The land isn’t arable, there is no farming. So everything the nomads need, they get from animals (camels, cows, yaks, horses, sheep, goats, dogs, eagles, and the wild animals they observe and hunt).

Golden eagles in this region naturally predate on foxes. Subadult eagles are used by these nomads for huntingthat is because the eagles are old enough to be hunting independently, but young enough to still be open to training. In this mountainous environment, foxes are extremely difficult to hunt by other means. But when you flush a fox into the open, your wild eagle knows exactly what to do. In fact, with her superior eyesight she’ll see the foxes far more often than you will! The majority of foxes will still evade the eagle, but she will dive at high speed, turn on a dime, and do every athletic maneuver she can think of to try and outwit the fox. Even if she misses, you are often just awed! If she succeeds, she gets the fox meat to eat to her heart’s content, and you get the fox pelt to make warm winter clothing with. What an ingenious way to navigate an unforgiving environment!

These eagle masters don’t just talk to eagles, they talk to all manner of animals wild and domestic in their daily lives. I think it gives them an intuition that we can all learn from. Also, the spectacle of their falconry—hunting foxes in mountains off horseback with eagles—you have no idea what century you are in when you witness that. There is almost no sign of what age you are in. That’s special.

Name the eagle that's closest to your heart.
Alema. She is the eagle I trapped, trained, and hunted foxes with in Mongolia under the guidance of the Kazakh masters. I was struck by how bright the night sky was, without hardly any light pollution, and so “alema” means the “sky’s road,” which is the Kazakh phrase for the Milky Way. She taught me so much. I’ll never forget her.

Lauren boots up her Marshall GPS transmitter to put on Mokala before she flies. The transmitter records her height above the ground, speed, and if Mokala drifts out of sight, assures Lauren of her exact location, which Lauren can follow on her phone.

What’s wonderful about falconry is that the eagle does everything it does in the wild—it flies, soars, chases, catches its dinner—it just also comes home with you at the end of the day. In doing that, the eagle gives you a window into the wild lives of wild eagles. You might never see a wild eagle catch a hare, or attempt to, but with falconry, you get a front row seat to this ancient predator-prey dance. It makes me feel closer to nature, and to appreciate it in new ways.

When I’m hunting with Vega, my golden eagle, I have her on my glove and we walk out across the grasslands. She is like a coiled spring. She is watching every blade of grass bend. At any moment a hare could explode into the open. Because her eyesight and reaction time is so much better than mine, I often start to feel her spring forward from my glove before I’ve seen anything. I push with my glove to help launch her and then there it is—that flash of fur darting across the prairie. The eagle picks up speed, she’s pumping hard and the hare starts to juke, spin, start/stop, any trick from its vast arsenal to outmaneuver the eagle. In a split second it’s over—either the hare has juked the eagle and is running to the horizon with the eagle perplexed on the ground, or the eagle takes the hare and starts to eat. If the former I call her back to the glove and we continue walking across the grassland, if the latter I let her eat till she feels satisfied and we go home. It’s an absolutely magical way to escape the modern world for a few hours!

Handing Mokala her reward after she soared. Sighthound Karoo hopes for a fallen tidbit.

What’s always in your pockets?
As a falconer, I often have tidbits in my pockets. These are small pieces of raw meat that I can use to call my free-flying eagle back to my glove, usually after she misses a hare. But it’s a terrible thing to forget in your pocket! Also Chapstick because holy moly, my lips can’t survive an hour without it. I don’t know what people did before Chapstick!

Falconry isn't just a hobby for you. It’s also your work...
Yes. I am an anthropologist at Colorado State University Pueblo, working as a post-doctoral researcher. Right now I am working on a project that aims to understand how different groups of people in the American West perceive and think about golden eagles. Golden eagles are an icon of the west, but sadly, they have a high mortality rate from lead poisoning (usually from gut piles left in the field from big game shot with lead ammunition), electrocution, wind turbines, and, most surprisingly, from being shot. This also goes hand in hand with the rehabilitation work I do. Using the techniques I learned in Mongolia, I help young golden eagles that have been injured gain the hunting experience they need in order to be released back to the wild.

Is there an organization you'd like to shout out?
The Archives of Falconry at www.falconry.org It is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization located in Boise, Idaho, with the aim to preserve, protect and interpret the global cultural heritage of falconry. They do superb historical and educational work, especially as the importance of the human-raptor relationship is often overlooked, and I've been proud to work with them.

You’re a world expert in your field. What do you suck at?
That list is long! Holding a tune, tying knots, math, and directions are the ones that plague me in my day-to-day life!

Do you fly in your dreams?
I do! But it’s always hard work, like running as fast as you can. I think that comes back to the eagles I train, and though their flight might appear effortless to us on the ground, it takes a lot of energy and effort for an eagle to fly—especially when they’re chasing their dinner. I’m always trying to help them become as fit as possible, like athletes. I think I know too much, because in my dreams flying feels like sprinting! 


Follow Lauren’s adventures in falconry here.
Lauren’s pronouns are she + her.

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