Eagle Hunters of Western Mongolia

Hunting with eagles

Hunting with eagles is a traditional form of falconry found throughout the Eurasian Steppe, practiced by the Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz in contemporary Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as diasporas in Bayan-Ulgii Provinces Bayan-Ulgii, Mongolia, and Xinjiang, China. Though these people are most famous for hunting with golden eagles, they have been known to train northern goshawks, peregrine falcons, saker falcons, and more.

Terminology

In both Kazakh and Kyrgyz, there are separate terms for those who hunt with birds of prey in general, and those who hunt with eagles.

In Kazakh, both qusbegi and sayatshy refer to falconers in general. Qusbegi comes from the words qus bird and bek lord, thus literally translating as lord of birds. In Old Turkic, kush begiwas a title used for the khan’s most respected advisors, reflecting the valued role of the court falconer. Sayatshy comes from the word sayat falconry and the suffix -shy, used for professional titles in Turkic languages. The Kazakh word for falconers that hunt with eagles is búrkitshy, from búrkit golden eagle, while the word for those that use goshawks is qarshyghashy, from qarshygha goshawk.

In Kyrgyz, the general word for falconers is münüshkör. A falconer who specifically hunts with eagles is a bürkütchü, from bürküt golden eagle.

History

Khitans

In 936-45 AD the Khitans, a nomadic people from Manchuria, conquered part of north China. In 960 AD China was conquered by the Song dynasty. From its beginnings, the Song dynasty was unable to completely control the Khitan who had already assimilated much of Chinese culture. Throughout its 300-year rule of China, the Song had to pay tribute to the Khitan to keep them from conquering additional Song territory. Despite the fact that the Khitans assimilated Chinese culture, they retained many nomadic traditions, including eagle hunting (see the unknown Chinese painting from Song dynasty).

Jurchen

Many Jurchen tribes hunted the hai dong qing, the Khitan tried to take the eagle hunting for themselves by force, but it did not end in the Khitan’s favour. The Jurchen started a revolt against them, which let them regain access to the hai dong qing that they hunted previously.

Kyrgyz

In 1207, the Kyrgyz nomads surrendered to Genghis Khan’s son Jochi. Under Mongol rule, the Kyrgyz preserved their nomadic culture as well as eagle falconry tradition until the 79. Archaeologists trace back falconry in Central Asia to the first or second millennium BC.

Kazakhs

During the communist period in Kazakhstan, many Kazakhs fled for Mongolia, settling in Bayan-Ulgii Province and bringing with them their tradition of hunting with eagles. There are an estimated 250 eagle hunters in Bayan-Ulgii, which is located in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia. 

Their falconry custom involves hunting with golden eagles on horseback, and they primarily hunt red foxes and corsac foxes. They use eagles to hunt foxes and hares during the cold winter months when it is easier to see the gold colored foxes against the snow. Each October, Kazakh eagle hunting customs are displayed at the annual Golden Eagle Festival. Although the Kazakh government has made efforts to lure the practitioners of these Kazakh traditions back to Kazakhstan, most Kazakhs have remained in Mongolia.