The Kazakhs have a tradition of using falcons and eagles to hunt. Falcons are widely revered and falconry has long tradition in Kazakhstan. The Kazakhs have traditionally hunted with eight different kinds of bird of prey. A monument of independence in Almaty shows a hunter with a falcon on one arm and a winged snow leopard standing behind him. A traditional Kazakh saying goes: “A hawk on the hand—meat in the pot; a falcon on the hand—gladness in the heart.”

Falconry is a sport in which falcons are used by hunters to catch birds and small animals such as rabbits. Falconry is regarded as lifestyle rather than a hobby or sport. It takes a great deal of time unless you are rich enough to pay somebody to do the work for you. The birds have to be flown every day. Feeding, flying and care can several hours a day. A great deal of time is needed to train the birds, hunting with them and chasing after them. These days some falconers simple raise and care for their birds and don’t use them at all for hunting.

Falcons are prized for hunting because of their hunting instincts and speed. Some are caught in the wild. Others are bred. The sport of falconry essentially harnesses their instincts while benig loosely under the control of their human owners. The birds are allowed to fly free when hunting. What lures them back is a reward of food. Without the reward they might just fly off and never return.

The key of falcon hunting is training the falcons. After hunters captured wild falcons, they put all their energy into carefully feeding and taking care of them. They made leather head covers and blinders for them, and flew them and trained them every day. When fully trained falcons used their sharp claws to capture foxes, rabbits, various birds and small animals—even wolves and Mongolian gazelles. Kazakhs are most famous for hunting with golden eagles, but they have also been known to train northern goshawks, peregrine falcons, saker falcons, and others. The famed eagle hunters are found in western Mongolia, not China or Kazakhstan. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Falconry Recognized by UNESCO

In 2012, falconry as practiced in the United Arab Emirates, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, South Korea, Mongolia, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Spain and Syria was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list. According to UNESCO: “Falconry is the traditional activity of keeping and training falcons and other raptors to take quarry in its natural state. Originally a way of obtaining food, falconry is today identified with camaraderie and sharing rather than subsistence. Falconry is mainly found along migration flyways and corridors, and is practised by amateurs and professionals of all ages and genders. Falconers develop a strong relationship and spiritual bond with their birds, and commitment is required to breed, train, handle and fly the falcons. [Source: UNESCO ~]

Falconry is transmitted as a cultural tradition by a variety of means, including mentoring, learning within families and formalized training in clubs. In hot countries, falconers take their children to the desert and train them to handle the bird and establish a mutual relationship of trust. While falconers come from different backgrounds, they share common values, traditions and practices such as methods of training and caring for birds, equipment used and the bonding process. Falconry forms the basis of a wider cultural heritage, including traditional dress, food, songs, music, poetry and dance, sustained by the communities and clubs that practise it. ~

According to UNESCO falconry was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list because: 1) Falconry, recognized by its community members as part of their cultural heritage, is a social tradition respecting nature and the environment, passed on from generation to generation, and providing them a sense of belonging, continuity and identity; 2) Efforts already underway in many countries to safeguard falconry and ensure its transmission, focusing especially on apprenticeship, handicrafts and conservation of falcon species, are supplemented by planned measures to strengthen its viability and raise awareness both at national and international levels.

Falcons and Hawks

Falcons and hawks are virtually the same. Falcons are a kind of hawk with a notched beak and long wings that allow them to attain great speeds. The premier birds of falconry are peregrine falcons and saker falcons. Gyrfalcons, the largest and fastest falcons, are also used.

A lone falcon hovering several hundred meters above of the ground can suddenly plunge at speeds well over a 100mph and snag a rodent, dove or hare. Peregrines can reportedly fly at 80 mph on the flat and reach 200 mph when they dive. They can also predict which way their prey will move. In the wild, falcon chicks have a low survival rate, probably around 40 percent and perhaps as low as 20 percent.

Non-falcon birds used in falconry include goshawks and hawk-eagles. Goshawks can not fly nearly as fast as falcons but they can turn quickly and maneuver in the air with great skill. They are great hunters but notoriously difficult to train.

Many of the birds used in falconry are endangered and catching them is illegal. This doesn’t stop people from buying them. There is active black market. Sometimes the birds sell for tens of thousands of dollars. A blonde shaheen (falcon) from Iran sells for as much as $30,000.

History of Falconry

Falconry is believed to have started in Central Asia about 2000 B.C., where hunters of the steppe perhaps learned to tame falcons and use them to hunt. Ancient hunters had no guns or other modern hunting tools, and depended on hunting dogs and tamed falcons to capture animals.

Genghis Khan is said to have been afraid of dogs and his passion seemed to be falconry. He kept 800 sake falcons and 800 attendants to take care of them and demanded that 50 camel-loads of swans, a favored prey, be delivered every week. Marco Polo said that Kublai Khan employed 10,000 falconers and 20,000 dog handlers. In his description of Xanadu Polo wrote: “Inside the Park there are fountains and rivers and brooks, and beautiful meadows, with all kinds of wild animals (excluding such as are of a ferocious nature), which the Emperor has procured and placed there to supply food for his gyrfalcons and hawks...The gyrfalcons alone amount to more than 200.”

On Kublai Khan and his pleasure palace, Marco Polo wrote: “Once a week he comes in person to inspect [falcons and animals] in the mew. Often, too, he enters the park with a leopard on the crupper of his horse; when he feels inclined, he lets it go and thus catches a hare or stag or roebuck to give to the gyrfalcons that he keeps in the mew. And this he does for recreation and sport."

During the Middle Ages in Europe, falconry was a favorite sport among knights and aristocrats. There were rules about preventing falconers form bringing the birds into church. Some men got married with falconers on their arms. Henry VIII reportedly almost died chasing a hawk (while vaulting a ditch his pole broke and he almost drowned when his head got stuck in the mud).

After the invention of sophisticated guns, falcons were no longer vital as a hunting tool. Since then falconry has existed as a sport and hobby. There is no real practical reason for it exist. Desert Bedouins and horsemen of the steppe relied on falcons for food as a longer time that other that practiced falconry as they were useful catching small game in environments where catching such game was difficult without birds.

Falcon Training

It takes a minimum of $2,000 to $4,000 to get started in falconry. Building a mew (falconry birdhouse) costs at least $1,5000. A perch, leash, leather glove have to be purchased. A falcon cost several hundred or several thousand dollars more. Maintaining the bird can also be costly. Apprentices generally work under a sponsor for a couple of years before they are regarded as experienced enough to raise their own birds.

Stephen Bodio wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “The education of the falconer is a chastening process. The bird never gives an inch—you can coax it but never bully or even discipline it. Your purpose in the field is to assist the bird, your reward the companionship of a creature that can disappear forever over the horizon in 15 second flat. And the closer your falcon approaches the behavior of a wild bird the better, as long as it approves of your company.” One falconry master said, "We do not domesticate falcons, although many people think we do. In reality we try to bring out all their natural qualities without harming their way of life."

Among falconers there are two types of birds: 1) birds of the lure, which are trained to return to a swinging lure and circle high in the air and go after game that has been flushed out by their masters; and 2) birds of the fist, which are trained to go after prey straight from their master’s arm. Females are preferred to males because they are generally a third larger and this can hunt larger game.

Falconer paraphernalia includes: 1) a glove (to keep the falcon from clawing its master’s arm); 2) a hood for the bird (which makes it think that it is night, thus calming the bird and helping it rest and sleep); 3) a perch for the bird to rest on when he’s in house; and 4) leashes, which are used when there are concerns about the bird escaping or for certain kinds of training.

Falcon Training Objectives

Falcons are not trained to kill (they do that by instinct). They are trained to return. The earliest part of the training process is the most difficult and takes boundless patience. Just getting a bird to mount the glove can take weeks. Getting it to return when its can escape to the wild is a great achievement. Rewards for the bird come in the form of small pieces of meat. By providing the bird with food she comes to think of its master as its servant and after a while comes to look forward to her masters visits.

In the early training season, falcons are taken for a walk early in the morning so they can become familiar with their environment. They are trained to respond to whistles and other signals. It is important to maintain an element of success. You don’t want your bird to get frustrated or bored.

An important requirement is the ability to hold the bird steady, One falconry master said, "An unstable hold, swinging the arm or rolling the wrist, makes the falcon tense and nervous so that its concentration is spoiled. As a result the bird does not take in what the falconer teaches, making the training completely useless." During the hunting stage of the training, the master simply tries to provide the bird with prey and let it hunt and then return. Often times dogs are used to flush game.

Training and Raising Falcons the Kazakh Way

Before taming them, the Kazakhs fed good meat to the falcons, and let them become plump and strong as quickly as possible. But at this time, the fat on the falcon made it relatively weak; and the bird could not become strong until the fat was turned into muscle. To do this the hunters reduced the amount of fat of the falcons. They not only did not feed the birds, but also “washed their stomach.” Then they used hot water to bathe the falcon, and let it sweat all over. In the evening, the falcon was placed on a thick rope that was specially used to tame it. The falcon could not stand steadily, and the hunter used a stick to steadily beat a rope under it. The rope shook unceasingly, and the falcon could not sleep. This was called "torturing the falcon". When the falcon was so tired it couldn’t stand it anymore, it fell to the ground. At this time, the hunter used clean water to wash the falcon's head, and let it drink some tea or salted water. Under these conditions, the falcon became very thin only in a few days, and lose their spirit.~

At this time, the hunter began taming the falcon. He placed in special blinders on the head of the falcon, and did not let it see anything, and then fed it some rabbits, pigeons, little birds and other animals' meat. This helped to eliminate the bird’s fear and hostility to man. Then, the hunting training began. One falcon has sixteen sections of tail feathers. It takes off, brakes, glides, and captures animals through the coordination of these sixteen tail feather sections. At the time of training, these sixteen sections of feather were bound up one by one. The string around feathers could not be too tight or too loose: the falcon could not fly if it was too tight, and it would flee if it were too loose. ~

On the training ground, some rabbits and pigeons were tied with ropes. When everything was ready, the hunter would take the blinders off the falcon and let it fly to capture the animals and eat until had enough. In the next step of training, the hunter did not let the falcon eat the animals after it captured them, and did this repeatedly for many times, until finally letting the bird eat. After a certain time, several pieces of feather would be loosened, and then all of them would be loosened. Half a month later, the falcon would be completely tamed. When testing the result of taming, the hunter placed some meat in the house and induced the falcon to eat. If the falcon came to eat, he succeeded and could use the falcon to hunt. When feeding the falcon, the hunter only gave it lean meat and would not let it have enough to be full. This was because "the satisfied falcon would not capture bags". When not hunting, the falcon's blinders and feet blocks were kept on. This was called "not setting free the falcon until the hunting objectives emerge". ~

When hunting, the hunter carried the falcon with his left hand, whipped his horse with his right hand and galloped very fast, with hunting dogs running excitedly behind him, keeping a close watch on the objective animals. After choosing an appropriate place, the hunter quickly removed the falcon's blinders, and took off the feet block. Blowing a whistle, the hunter let the hungry and agitated falcon fly up like a sparrow, and quickly swoop down on its astonished prey. It didn’t matter whether the prey animal was flying in the sky or running on the ground, the sharp eyes and great strength of the agile falcon allowed it to capture their prey alive in a short moment. A good falcon could capture several hundred animals every year. No wonder, the Kazakhs say, “you can hardly exchange a good falcon with a good horse.” ~

Falcon on the Hunt

When hunting a falcon is taken to a place where there is likely to be game. The bird is released from the gloved fist and allowed to fly off to a perch where it watches for movement as the handler walks along beating out game. When the falcon swoops after a small animal the handler runs after her. If the bird doesn’t catch anything the handler will whistle her back to his glove and gives her some food as a reward.

Describing a peregrine falcon on the hunt, Stephen Bodio wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “I looked up to see a dot dropping, becoming an inverted heart, a diving bird. The wind screamed through her bells, making a sound like nothing else on Earth as she fell a half mile through the clear autumn air.”

“At the last moment she turned parallel to the chukar’s line of flight and hit from behind with a solid thwack. The air filled with a blizzard of feathers as the chukar fell limply from the sky. The falcon made a delicate curve in he air, turned and fluttered down on the fallen prey like a butterfly.”

When a falcons catch a small animal such as a rabbit the bird pins her prey on its back with her talons and brutally pecks at it with her beak. The handlers rushes to the falcon to remove the catch and make sure the bird isn’t injured. Often the handler will let the falcon enjoy a couple pieces of meat from the kill and then swap it for some chicken.

Falcon Farms and Endangered Falcons

Ashot Anzorov raises falcons on Sunkar farm in the Great Almaty Gorge of the Tien Shan mountains. He has females falcons that produce eggs. The eggs are hatched and the nestlings are fed 0.3 kilogram of meat a day. The meat comes from a rabbit farm nearby. About 40 days after hatching the nestlings are able to fly. That is when they are sold.

The numbers of wild birds of prey used in falconry are dwindling due to the illegal capture of birds to supply the demand by falconers, primarily in the Middle East. During the Soviet era, falconry was not widely practiced and there was very little smuggling. Since independence in 1991, the illegal hunting of birds and smuggling has steadily risen,

Unemployed herders and farmers are catching birds. They have been encouraged by rumors that falcons can fetch as much as $80,000 on the world market. The reality is that birds usually only sold for $500 to $1,000. Customs officials are often bribed substantial sums to get the birds out of the country. The birds are sometime hidden in trunks of cars or in suitcases. One Syrian man was sentenced to five years in prisons for trying smuggle 11 falcons out of the country.

Saker Falcons

Saker falcons are among the most prized birds of prey in falconry. They were used by Mongol khans and regarded as descendants of the Huns who had them pictured on their shields. Genghis Khan kept 800 of them and 800 attendants to take care of them and demanded that 50 camel-loads of swans, a favored prey, be delivered every week. According to legend sakers alerted khans to the presence of poisonous snakes. Today they are sought after by Middle Eastern falconers who prize them for their aggression in hunting prey. [Source: Adele Conover, Smithsonian magazine]

Sakers are slower than peregrine falcons but they can still fly at speeds to 150mph. However, they are regarded as the best hunters. They are masters of feints, fake maneuvers and quick strikes. They are able to fool their prey into heading the direction they want them to go. When alarmed saker let out a call that sounds like a cross between a whistle and a screech. Sakers spend their summers in Central Asia. In the winter they migrate to China, the Arab Gulf area and even Africa.

Sakers are close relatives of gyrfalcons. Wild ones feed on small hawks, striped hoopees, pigeons and choughs (crowlike birds) and small rodents. Describing a young male saker hunting a vole, Adele Conover wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “The falcon takes off from perch, and a quarter-mile away it drops down to grab a vole. The force of the impact hurls the vole into the air. The saker circles back to pick up the hapless rodent.”

Sakers don’t make their own nests. They usually hijack the nest of birds, usually other birds of prey or ravens, often on top of boulders or small rises in the steppe or on power line towers or railroad check stations. Usually one or two birds are born. If they are threatened they stay still and play dead.

Fifteen-day-old sakers are puffballs of feathers. Young sakers stay close to their nest, occasionally hopping around nearby rocks, until they fledge when they are 45 days old. They hang around from 20 or 30 more days while the parents gently encourage them to leave. Sometimes siblings will remain together for a while after they leave the nest. Life is hard. About 75 percent of young sakers die in their first autumn or winter. If two birds are born the older one often eats the younger one.

Endangered Saker Falcons and Falconry

A favorite hobby of wealthy businessmen and sheiks from the Persian Gulf is to fly to the deserts of Pakistan with their favorite falcons to hunt the lesser MacQueen's bustard, a hen-sized bird prized as a delicacy and an aphrodisiac which has been hunted extinction in the Middle East. Rare houbara bustard are also favored prey (See Birds). Winter is favorite time to hunt with sakers. Females are more sought after than males.

In ancient times, saker falcons ranged from the forests of East Asia to the Carpathian Mountains in Hungary. Today the are only found only in Mongolia, China, Central Asia and Siberia. The estimates of the number of sakers in Mongolia ranges from 1,000 to 20,000. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) bans the trade of gyr and peregrine falcons and severely restricts the export of sakers.

According to the convention, Mongolia was allowed to export around 60 birds a year for $2,760 each in the 1990s. Separately, the Mongolian government made a contract with a Saudi prince in 1994 to supply him with 800 non-endangered falcons for two years for $2 million.

Alister Doyle of Reuters wrote: “Saker falcons are among those exploited to the brink of extinction, he said. In the wild in Kazakhstan, for instance, one estimate was that there were just 100-400 pairs of Saker falcon left, down from 3,000-5,000 before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The UCR (www.savethefalcons.org), funded by public, private and corporate donors, wants Washington to impose limited trade sanctions on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan and Mongolia for failing to stamp out the trade. [Source: Alister Doyle, Reuters, April 21, 2006]

Scientist and conservationist have worked hard to save saker falcons. In Mongolia, scientist have built nesting sites for sakers. Unfortunately these sites are often visited by poachers. Sakers have successfully bred in captivity in Kazakhstan and Wales.

Saker Falcon Smuggling

Saker falcons sell for up to $200,000 on the black market and have earned the name “feathered cocaine.” On the streets of Ulaanbaatar gentle-looking men sometimes approach foreigners and ask them if they want to buy young sake falcons. A typical bird sells around $2,000 to $5,000. Buyers prefer experienced hunters but sometimes buy young fledglings.

In Mongolia, there are stories of smugglers trying get sakers out of the country by dousing them with vodka to keep them quiet and hiding them in their coats. In 1999, a sheik from Bahrain was caught trying to smuggle 19 falcons through Cairo’s airport. A Syrian was caught at the Novosibirsk airport with 47 sakers hidden in boxes bound for the United Arab Emirates.

In 2006, Alister Doyle of Reuters wrote: “Smuggling is driving many species of falcon towards extinction in an illicit market where prized birds can sell for a million dollars each, an expert said. The black market in birds of prey, centred around the Middle East and Central Asia, can yield bigger profits than selling drugs or weapons, according to the U.S.-based Union for the Conservation of Raptors (UCR). "Imagine having something weighing 2 lb (1 kg) on your hand that can sell for a million dollars," UCR chief Alan Howell Parrot told Reuters of the most prized falcons. [Source: Alister Doyle, Reuters, April 21, 2006]

“He estimated smuggling of raptors peaked in 2001 with 14,000 birds, ranging from eagles to hawks. "The illicit trade has gone down dramatically, not because of law enforcement, but because the falcons don't exist any more," he said. Parrot said smugglers often skirted controls by travelling to falconry camps abroad with farmed birds. These, he said, were then freed, replaced with more valuable wild birds and re-imported. "You enter with 20 birds and leave with 20 — but they're not the same birds," he said. "The starting price is $20,000 and they can go for more than $1 million," he said. "Perhaps 90-95 percent of the trade is illicit."

“Another way to catch falcons was to attach a satellite transmitter to a wild bird and then release it -- hoping that it would eventually guide you to a nest and valuable eggs. He said farmed birds usually failed to learn how to hunt prey when released to the wild because captivity did not give harsh enough training. "It's the same with people. If you take someone from Manhattan and put them in Alaska or Siberia and they will be running around trying to dial 911," he said, referring to the U.S. emergency services phone number. "Only one in 10 farmed falcons can hunt well. You buy many and use the other nine as live bait to help catch wild falcons," he said.

Houbara Bustard, the Favored Sake Falcon Prey

The Houbara bustard is a large bird that is found in semi-deserts and steppes in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. They have black patches on their necks and wings and reach 65 to 78 centimeters in length and have a wingspan of up to five feet. Males weigh 1.8 to 3.2 kilograms. Females weigh 1.2 to 1.7 kilograms. [Source: Philip Seldon, Natural History, June 2001]

Houbara bustards are well suited for their environment. They are well camouflaged and do not need to drink (they get all the water they need from their food). Their diet is extremely varied. They eat lizards, insects, berries and green shoots and are preyed upon by foxes. Although they have strong wings and are capable fliers they prefer to walk partly, it seems, because they’re are so hard to see when they are on the ground.

Bustards are long-legged, short-toed, broad-wing birds that live in the desert, grasslands of brushy plains of the Old World. Most of the 22 species are native to Africa. They usually are brown in color and duck when alarmed and are difficult to see. Males are generally much larger than females and they are famous for their bizarre courtship displays which often involve inflating sacs and elongating their neck feathers.

Male Houbara bustard are solitary during the nesting season. Females incubate the eggs and raise the young. Male Houbara bustard defend a large territory during the breeding season. They perform dramatic courtship displays with their crown feathers ruffled and white breast plumes sticking out and dances around doing a high-stepped trot. A mother usually raises two or three chicks, which stay with the mother for about three months even though they can fly short distances after a month. The mother teaches the chicks how to recognize dangers such as foxes.

Saving Endangered Houbara Bustard

There are an estimated 100,000 Houbara bustard. Their numbers have been reduced by loss of habitat and hunting. Many Arabs love the taste of their meat and enjoy hunting them with falcons. Their fighting spirit and strong flight of the Houbara bustard makes them attractive targets for falconers. They are generally much larger than the falcons that attack them.

In 1986, Saudi Arabia began a conservation program to save Houbara bustards. Large protected areas were established. Houbara bustards are captively bred at the National Wildlife Research Center in Taif, Saudi Arabia. Female bustards are artificially inseminated and the chicks are hand-raised and then released. The goal is to reestablish a healthy population in the wild. The main problems are preparing them to find food and escape predators.

After they are 30 to 45 days old, Houbara bustards are released into a special predator-free enclosure where they learn to find food. Once they are ready they can simply fly out of the enclosure into the desert. Many of the captively-raised birds have been killed by foxes. An effort has been made to trap the foxes and move them away but this did not decrease the death rate of the birds. Conservationists have more success with three-minute training sessions in which young caged bustards are exposed to a trained fox outside the cage. These birds had a higher survival rate than non-trained birds.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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