|Chinggis Khuree ger camp, approximately 20km south of Ulaanbaatar.|
|The procession of golden eagle hunters lead by riders bearing the Mongolian national flag and the Bayan-Ulgii provincial flag approaches the main stage|
|Golden eagle hunters and an assistant in traditional Kazakh attire. The bright colors and intricate designs are typical of Kazakh textiles and differ markedly from the materials and styles favored in Mongolian textile.|
|The golden eagle hunters line up for the awards ceremony. Officials and dignitaries line up at the entrance of the main ger for the speeches and presentation of awards.|
It's difficult to see all of the gear and tack for golden eagle handling and hunting in these pictures. The eagle hoods are obvious but the hunters use some kind of tie or lead when their eagle is resting on their arm. If you're not sure whether or not you're afraid of birds, getting up close and personal with the golden eagles will settle the matter. All of the birds were well behaved, to the point that one man took a juvenile around for spectators to hold and touch.
|It's like something straight out of my nightmares...|
|These guys were either seasoned stars or naturals when it came to posing for the cameras. Too bad lots of other random photographers kept scurrying in and out of the frame!|
|Guess which one of us is wearing faux fur?|
|Mongolian falconers and archers in imperial armor line up with the Kazakh golden eagle hunters.|
|Closeup of a Mongolian falconer and his falcon.|
Falcons (shonkhor/шонхор in Mongolian) along with golden eagles appear to be the two kinds of raptors favored by hunters and the elite classes throughout the prehistory and history of Mongolia and Inner Asia. If you want to know more, I suggest reading Professor Ulambayar Erdenebat's new book, "Mongolian Falconery" (Монгол Шувуулахуй):
After the awards and presentation ceremony, it was time for the competition to begin! The golden eagle hunters made their way across the snowy slopes to a point midway up a tall hill. The judges lined up at a table about 400m downhill at the bottom of the slope, and spectators watched from all along the slope.
|Carrying massive, scary eagles around with one arm, sitting in the snow - these guys are tough!|
The golden eagle hunting competition was not at all what I expected. Rather than doing any actual hunting, the competitors showed off a much more fundamental skill: getting their eagle to come when called. A hunter would leave his golden eagle with another handler, ride 250-400m downhill (depending on the stage of the competition and the hunter's skill level), and call for the bird. I wish I'd had a device to record their calls, as each hunter had a slightly different one, and they're very difficult to describe. There were variations on "Hooo!" and "Hai!", but the tone and timber are lost in written description.
It hadn't occurred to me until writing this post, but it's interesting how little attention is given to the role of the horses in the golden eagle-handler interactions. It's certainly true that the handlers obviously interact with their birds on foot (or rolling around in the snow, as with the juvenile golden eagle and its handler discussed above), but the significant public 'acts' of the Golden Eagle Festival were conducted on horseback. I wonder how much training it takes for the horses to get used to the eagles swooping at them and perching outside their field of vision but rather close to their heads? That day I can't' recall any instances when a horse seemed spooked or afraid of an eagle; whenever a horse bolted, it seemed more from excitement or in response to another horse than out of fear.
|Having been persuaded to come when called, a golden eagle comes in for a landing on its handler's arm.|
In an interesting parallel to the 'defiance' of these eagles, some of the horses also resisted the goals and order of the day's competition. At the top of the slope, where the eagle hunters gathered to wait their turn, a few horses slowly broke away from the group while their handler was trying to coax one of the rebellious eagles back to his arm. The horses couldn't be caught on foot, despite how slowly they made their way through the snow, and it took a second eagle hunter on horseback several minutes to round them back up. Another rider dismounted at the base of the slope in an attempt to compel his recalcitrant eagle, only to have his horse take off back up the slope towards the rest of its herd. It would be easy to ascribe these unruly moments to lack of control, but I think it speaks to how successful golden eagle hunting relies upon strong relationships of mutual trust and comfort between all parties involved.
|A successful call and flight by a more experienced golden eagle hunting team: horse, human, and bird are all on the same page.|
I was so caught up in the golden eagle competition that I almost completely missed the archery displays by the Mongolian falconers in cavalry armor. Their competition was to shoot at a target as they rode past in a group, a nod to military training exercises from Mongolia's historic and prehistoric imperial legacy. The archers and their falcons were kind enough to pose for pictures once they were done with the competition.
|Like the other competitors of the day, the Mongolian falconers were in high demand for photo ops. That means there are randos in most of my pictures.|
|Adorable, fuzzy, and not yet ferocious.|
|A handsome boy with the distinctive coloring, dense coat, pouffy tail, and ruff of a purebred Mongol bankhar|
I was so lucky to see the golden eagle hunters, as it's unlikely I'll be able to visit Western Mongolia any time soon and the regular Golden Eagle Festival only happens in the fall. The Mongolian falconers and Mongol bankhar were unexpected treats rounding out a day of human-animal relationships. The various fun outings and adventures I've had in Mongolia since mid-2013 have intersected with my dissertation research in interesting and surprising ways. I'm looking forward to more encounters with 'naturecultures' and 'companion species' as the snow melts and spring comes to Mongolia.