Hunting with golden eagles is an ancient tradition
that dates back to the Mongol conquest of Central Asia around the 12 th
and 13 th centuries, when a fine eagle and good horse cost the same
price and both lent prestige to their owner.
Although the practice is gradually disappearing in this area, hunting
with birds (especially with eagles) is still practiced in certain
regions of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Westerners tend to think of this
as falconry - and although hunting with hawks and falcons does take
place, it is looked down upon by those who hunt with eagles as a
pastime for children and dilettantes.
Hunting takes place riding a specially trained horse, (called a bercut
). To allow a rider to carry an eagle a special
device ( baldak ) is fitted onto the saddle to
support the rider's arm.
Sent out to hunt fawns, foxes, or other small animals, the eagle dives
down on them and kills them. But often it is also capable of killing
young wolves when they cannot negotiate the deep snow. Sometimes the
eagles hunt in pairs, just as they would in the wild.
A skilled pair, berkutchi (hunter) and bird,
can typically catch fifty or sixty foxes, a dozen badgers, a couple of
lynx and four or five wolves in a normal four month season, which
starts in the late autumn. Eagles rarely fail to catch their prey,
which they kill quickly, usually by breaking the neck in their powerful
The capture, training and keeping of eagles is a highly ritualized
activity, and both the Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz are experts. They even
manage to get the bird to kill the prey while scarcely leaving a mark
on its fur.
Training eagles takes a long time, (three to four years), must be done
by one person, and requires constant daily attention.
Most of the birds, which can have a life expectancy of forty years, are
caught young, hooded, and placed in a cage with a perch that constantly
sways while the berkutchi sings and chants to
it, to imprint the sound of his voice and impress his personality on
the bird. (Later on, the eagle is able to distinguish human voices and
will obey only that of his master).
The berkutchi feeds the bird himself.
When the eagle is almost an adult, the trainer shows it the hides and
furs of the animals it must hunt so that it becomes used to the smell
and characteristics of the prey. All of this is done with special
Training continues by dragging a fox fur behind a galloping horse.
Not all eagles can be so trained, but those that do show intense
loyalty. Although never tethered they always return after killing their
Although there are several people who keep birds and fly them, perhaps
the most famous is Tenti, the "Bird Man of Jele Debe". Jele Debe is a
small village near to Djety Orguz in Issyk Kul oblast. Tenti has been
hunting with eagles since he was twelve years old, and is one of the
few remaining master practitioners of the art. He has been featured in
newspaper articles all over the world, notably in the US.
The season for hunting with eagles lasts from October to February. The
larger eagles malt during the summer months and do not fly. So during
the tourist season demonstrations of the art are limited to showing the
magnificent birds near to Bishkek.