Mother of Dragons
The wind blew hard and fast across the rolling pastures of Arnett, Oklahoma, toppling tall clumps of bluestem and broomweed and transforming the sky into a time-lapse panorama of whooshing clouds. Lauren McGough (rhymes with “wow”), a 29-year-old master falconer, stood beside her Toyota 4Runner, her hair whipped into a chaotic thicket, as she looked out at the swaying grasses and tried to muster some optimism. True, the conditions were all wrong for that afternoon’s hunt. The strong gusts would encourage the already skittish jackrabbits to hunker down deeper into hiding. The unseasonably balmy autumn air would make McGough’s bird lethargic. He was already a couple of ounces overweight. Even if her bird spotted his prey out in the open and took off after it, McGough knew that odds of a kill were low. In a moderate gale, all a jackrabbit needs to do is dart directly upwind to outrun pretty much anything that has to fly.
McGough has been an unwaveringly dedicated falconer since she discovered the sport at age 14, and she has come to understand flying raptors on wild game as a kind of visceral chess match. If you’re not thinking of everything—from the effect of the weather to the precise condition of your animal to the behavior of the quarry—then you and your bird are going to get outmaneuvered. Walking through the heavy wind, she was determined to find an opening.
That blustery late-fall day was the fifth of the North American Falconers Association’s annual field meet, a gathering of some 300 hawkers and their avian “hunting partners” that is more or less the sport’s signature showcase. (The word “falconry” is used to describe hunting with any species of bird of prey, although most American falconers prefer the less fussy word “hawking” and thus sometimes refer to themselves as “hawkers.”) The NAFA event isn’t really a “meet” as most people understand the word. There are no winners, no medals, and no competitions. In the world of falconry, simply tallying the quantity of game taken is a secondary, even grotesque measure of prowess. (“If you just want to kill things, you can toss a hawk out of a car window at some crows,” McGough told me.) The real reward—the true mark of skill—is having a bird that can make a strong flight, an elegant pursuit, and a clean, efficient, and ruthless slaughter.
Of the falconers who had gathered at NAFA’s official meet headquarters, a Clarion Inn just south of Interstate 40 in Elk City, Oklahoma, McGough stood out as a rare breed. In a sport dominated by middle-aged men, she is a young woman. Instead of flying one of the more popular birds of American falconry—the red-tailed hawk, the peregrine, the gyrfalcon—she has chosen to hunt with golden eagles, a bird so massive, powerful, and tempestuous that she calls it a “prairie dragon.” There are around 4,000 active falconers in the United States; of those only about a dozen hunt regularly with golden eagles. McGough is both the only woman in that group and easily the most intrepid. She has flown eagles in Scotland, Slovakia, and South Africa, and has become renowned in the falconry community for her time living among and hunting with the nomadic eagle falconers of western Mongolia.
McGough is also an unusually skillful practitioner of the art, with a reputation for flying other people’s “problem eagles,” and the prairie dragon that she had brought to the NAFA meet had tested her like few birds before him. Snatched from his mother’s Wyoming aerie illegally when he was just a hatchling, he’d grown up as an imprint—a bird who is convinced that it is a human. This had led to all sorts of bad behavior. After the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service confiscated him from his poacher, the bird passed between rehabbers and overwhelmed falconers. He never hunted, and instead bullied his caretakers into giving him food. (Imagine an unruly toddler with razor blades for fingernails, and you’ll understand why they gave in.)
When McGough got the bird last spring, her task had been to teach him to be a wild eagle again. He was already 12 years old (middle age for such a bird), and McGough had thought he might be a lost cause. She called him Miles Davis, not because he shared the jazzman’s mercurial personality (although he did), but because McGough would calm herself before their chaotic training sessions by listening to the soothing sounds of Davis’s muted trumpet.
Now, as McGough walked through the grass in Arnett with Miles on her fist, a small group of other falconers—the inner circle of her “falconry family”—joined her, serving as what are known as “scareboys.” They stomped the ground and thwacked clumps of grass with sticks in the hopes of startling a jackrabbit into the open. The work was repetitive. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!”
The call went up as a jackrabbit leaped out from its hiding spot, hesitated for a split second, and darted off for dear life. Miles spotted it, lifted off McGough’s gauntlet with a vigorous flap, and began the chase. The hare’s massive hind legs rocketed him forward like a pair of giant coiled springs, and as Miles closed in, the jackrabbit juked out from under his shadow.
Still, McGough’s prairie dragon looked—for a moment, at least—to have the hare beat. The bird swooped low over the ground and looked ready to dive the final few feet out of the sky and crush the jackrabbit’s life in his talons. But the hare mustered a final, decisive evasion, jumping over a small rise and disappearing into a ravine heavy with rock and brush. The befuddled Miles abandoned pursuit and glided to the ground, where he patiently waited for McGough to reclaim him.
“That’s more effort than I expected,” she said. “He did good.”
An hour and a half later, after two more failed chases, Miles sat on a wooden perch, his hackles up, devouring a jackrabbit leg that McGough had preserved from a more successful afternoon earlier in the week. This was the reality of the hunt even for one of nature’s most perfect predators.
McGough shrugged. “Most of the time, the rabbit wins.”
That evening, McGough was back in Elk City at the Clarion Inn, joking around with her longtime falconer friends, a geographically disparate group that comes together rarely and sets out to make the most of it. McGough had already been up until 3 a.m. earlier in the week singing karaoke at the Clarion’s smokey onsite bar, the Payzone Lounge, and during the day, her attention was divided between preparing for her evening presentations, attending social events (among them an all-meet crawfish boil), and politely answering questions from falconers who stopped her in the halls to ask what it was like to train a beast as massive and majestic as a golden eagle. Finding time to actually hunt with Miles was a constant challenge.
When I arrived at the Clarion Inn, I knew that falconry was having a bit of a moment. H Is for Hawk, the British writer Helen Macdonald’s 2015 memoir about her year training and hunting with a goshawk in the English Fens, had been a surprise best seller in both the U.K. and the U.S. And The Eagle Huntress—a documentary about Aisholpan Nurgaiv, a 13-year-old Kazakh girl who breaks into the male-dominated world of Mongolian falconry—premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and made this year’s Oscar Best Documentary Feature short list.
Still, when I got to Elk City, I wasn’t quite prepared for the surreal spectacle of a falconry meet. In a fenced-in plot next to the hotel’s parking lot, there were nearly 200 kestrels and merlins and peregrine falcons and prairie falcons and aplomado falcons and gyrfalcons and Harris’s hawks and red-tailed hawks and goshawks—each leashed to its own perch. Inside the hotel’s atrium—a cavernous space complete with palm fronds, tapestries with clip-art European village scenes, and a nine-hole mini golf course—falconers promenaded from the lobby to their rooms showing off resplendent, hooded birds that stood alert on their fists. At the Payzone Lounge, I met a swaggering falconer from the Chicago area, who—a few drinks in—told me that he worked in waste management. A few minutes later, we were staring into the back of his truck at a carrying case crafted from the top half of a Port a John, a golden eagle named Sam sitting inside. The Clarion Inn, needless to say, had waived its standard pet policy for the week.
The night of the hunt, I sat down with NAFA’s president, Scott McNeff, an elfin 40-year-old, who had volunteered to demystify the strange falconry sights I’d seen. Speaking in swells of enthusiasm, he walked me through the early history of hawking in the Near East, gushed about the rugged naturalist types who pioneered the sport in America in the mid-20th century, and proudly mentioned the 2010 UNESCO declaration that falconry was an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.” Then, he added a jarring warning.
“This isn’t something I’d encourage someone to do,” he said. “People get addicted to it. They quit their jobs. They get divorces. Sometimes I think I’d have been better off if I’d stuck to fly fishing.”
McNeff said this with a rueful smile. He took pride in the sport’s obsessives and the uncompromising stance they took toward their passion. He told me about falconers who moved across the country so that they could more conveniently hunt their preferred game, and others who spend months away from their families to live in hunting cottages near grouse-rich lands administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Everyone walking the halls of the NAFA meet, McNeff made clear, was living some version of this—even if they hadn’t uprooted their lives, they had devoted themselves to an all-in undertaking. NAFA’s official website makes sure aspiring falconers do not miss this point.
“Your hawk requires a significant amount of time, every day, 365 days a year, and a bird in training requires substantially more time,” reads a statement under the heading “Do You Really Want To Become a Falconer?” “You might be OK with this time commitment, but is your spouse OK with it? Your kids? Your career?”
The British novelist T.H. White, author of The Goshawk and The Once and Future King, had put the same idea more lyrically a half century earlier: “Falconry is not a hobby or an amusement: it is a rage.”
On my first night in Elk City, McGough was scheduled to give a presentation to NAFA members on a falconry expedition she’d taken last summer to fly eagles in South Africa and Zimbabwe. When I arrived for the talk, every seat in the room was taken.
McGough had begun to form the idea for her trip after learning about the groundbreaking 1924 discovery of the so-called Taung Child. The Australopithecus child’s skull had been one of the most significant fossil discoveries in history, proving that there was, as anthropologists said at the time, a “missing link between apes and man” and demonstrating concretely that humanity had evolved on the African continent. But falconers were interested in the Taung Child for other reasons.
“Way more interesting than how it lived was how it died,” McGough said, as she stood in front of a projected photograph of the famous skull.
McGough pointed to the small holes punched into the back of both of the Taung Child’s eye sockets. “For ages, they assumed the child was killed by a leopard or another big cat, but nothing a leopard ate would have punctures quite like this.”
In the mid-’90s, a paleoanthropologist named Lee Berger had considered these and other clues and fingered a different culprit in the death of the Taung Child. His conclusion had seemed wildly improbable—more a fantasy out of The Lord of the Rings than a moment in our species’s history—but over the next two decades, the scientific community had gradually accepted Berger’s finding. Now, McGough was excited to share it with her fellow falconers.
“The Taung Child,” McGough told the crowd, “was killed and eaten by an ancestor to a crowned eagle.”
The NAFA members broke into hearty applause, with a few letting out tongue-in-cheek cheers and joyful yelps. (Falconers always root for the bird.)
“It makes modern falconry so ironic—I just love it,” McGough continued, the room now hanging on her every word. “And there’s also this notion that eagles affected our evolution. Maybe hunting pressure from eagles in jungle environments helped push us out into a savannah environment where we walked upright. It’s a big thought experiment, and it’s hard to prove, but it’s really fun to think about.”
At some point over the 2.2 million years following the death of the Taung Child, humanity’s relationship with birds of prey shifted. Instead of watching the sky with the fear of being killed and eaten by a raptor, our ancestors convinced such birds to hop onto their fists and become their hunting partners. Archaeological digs in the Middle East have revealed that humans may have been hunting quarry with hawks and falcons as long as 10,000 years ago, and the practice had spread across Asia before the birth of Jesus Christ. By the Middle Ages, falconry was truly a sport of the world. In England, it was practiced up and down the rigid class system: Kings flew gyrfalcons; yeoman flew goshawks. In China, Marco Polo traveled with Emperor Kublai Khan’s hunting parties, and in his famous 13th-century travelogue, Polo recalls observing “full 10,000 falconers and some 500 gerfalcons, besides peregrines, sakes, and other hawks in great numbers.” In the Dutch village of Valkenswaard, falconers would trap migrating raptors by the hundreds and auction them off to emissaries of Europe’s royal courts. But the rise of accurate gun-hunting brought about the fall of falconry as a common—if never quite an average commoner’s—practice. From that point on, it became an elite, arcane, and somewhat eccentric pursuit.
McGough was a nature-obsessed teenager living in Oklahoma City when she first encountered the existence of modern-day falconry. She had moved from a childhood fascination with dinosaurs to an early adolescent passion for keeping snakes when, one day, while reading a reptile-breeding magazine, she came across an article that mentioned a man who flew peregrine falcons on game during the winter months. The idea struck McGough like a thunderbolt.
Before long, she had given away her snakes, sought out a master falconer to teach her to hunt with a red-tailed hawk, and begun to learn everything she could about the history and practice of the sport. One book in particular captured her imagination: a slender, impressionistic volume by the writer Steve Bodio titled A Rage for Falcons. (It takes its name from the T.H. White quotation.) After reading it, McGough struck up a correspondence with Bodio, who told her of his adventures in the Kazakh-majority regions of western Mongolia where he had hunted foxes with golden eagles. McGough knew that in European medieval falconry, women were limited to flying one of the tiniest, most delicate birds of prey, the merlin.
“That was cool falconry,” McGough said, “but it didn’t really inspire my imagination like the thought of going out into the mountains and killing a fox with a big eagle. I thought, ‘Hmmm, is that something I can do?’”
A little less than a decade later, McGough stepped off an airplane in the far western Mongolian province of Bayan-Ölgii to begin a nine-month Fulbright fellowship to document the area’s ancient and rapidly disappearing eagle-hunting traditions. McGough had already visited Bayan-Ölgii with her father after she graduated high school, and, while she hadn’t seen an eagle successfully kill a fox then, she had learned the lay of the land.
On her Fulbright trip, she knew where to begin. In the provincial capital of Ölgii, she hired a translator and rented a four-wheel-drive vehicle, then ventured deep into the rugged Altai Mountains, where ethnic Kazkah herders still lived a nomadic existence. McGough was looking for a mentor, a master eagle falconer who would not only be willing to teach her—and Kazakh falconers were not in the practice of teaching women—but who would agree to house her for the length of the hunting season, which typically lasts from October to February.
After knocking on the doors of huts, inquiring where the best eagle hunters lived, and frequently getting asked whether she was a missionary (“those were the only white people they’d ever seen out there”), McGough arrived in the rural district of Deluun at the yurt of a 55-year-old herder and eagle falconer named Kukan. He was eager to take on an apprentice, acutely aware that the eagle-hunting traditions were dying out as more young Kazahks abandoned the nomadic lifestyle. Kukan was a widower, and he lived with his three daughters, all of whom were around McGough’s age. “I could go out with all the dude hunters and do the eagle thing, then I could come back and hang with the girls who were just like me,” McGough said. The setup felt perfect.
But living among nomads in western Mongolia was an isolating, sometimes brutally hard existence. McGough barely had any contact with the outside world (communication with her family was mostly restricted to pinging out her GPS coordinates on a tracking device used by the likes of Himalayan mountaineers). Kukan and his daughters split their time between a canvas yurt and a mud-brick hut, both heated only by fire, and that winter turned out to be a zud, an unusually frigid season marked by blizzards, subzero temperatures, and livestock deaths. McGough has permanent nerve damage and circulation issues from her bouts of frostbite.
Adapting to the lifestyle was also challenging. McGough couldn’t speak Kazakh, and although a trio of young translators lived with her in one-month shifts, she was often alone with other falconers, getting by with body language and intuition. Kukan hunted on horseback, and McGough had little equestrian experience. Not long after she arrived, she and the master falconer were out laying traps to try to capture an eagle when her horse stepped into an unseen hole and bucked. As McGough fell from her saddle, one of her boots snagged in a stirrup, and she found herself being dragged across the steppe, her horse racing forward in a panicked gallop until, after 200 yards her boot popped free. “I could feel those hooves glancing off my skull,” McGough told me. “That’s the closest I’ve ever been to death.”
Trapping an eagle presented challenges above and beyond unruly mounts. Golden eagles migrate from Siberia to China in the fall, passing through Mongolia only for a short period of time in the month of October, so McGough and Kukan needed to find her a bird before Halloween. They also needed a bird that was young and female, since only female eagles are big enough to subdue a fox and older birds are too set in their ways to be effectively trained. It took two weeks, but finally, McGough got her eagle. She named her Alema after the Kazahk word for Milky Way, which she could make out in pinpoint detail on those clear Mongolian nights.
As one of McGough’s friends, the master falconer Jeff Fincher, told me, training a raptor is the process of “transitioning in the bird’s mind from a potential predator to a potential food source.” In Deluun, McGough accomplished that by rewarding Alema with meat as she progressed through falconry’s basic tasks. Alema was given meat for hopping onto McGough’s gauntlet. Alema was given meat when she returned to McGough’s fist after a short flight. Alema was given meat when she attacked fox-pelt lures that were designed to look like live prey.
During this time, the eagle flew on a leather leash called a creance, but after three weeks, Kukan told McGough that her bird was ready to fly free and pursue real game. On a hunt one week later, McGough remembers, she found herself standing with Alema on top of a boulder surveying an otherworldly rocky terrain that looked “like God had just picked up a few red pebbles and dropped them all over.” As she admired the scene, she heard a shout. A local teenager had volunteered to be that day’s scareboy, and he had spotted a fox. Alema snapped to attention, spotted the prey, and lifted off from McGough’s glove. The fox, aware of the danger, darted toward the cover of a cluster of rocks and began to circle around it trying to confuse the oncoming eagle. But Alema proved wilier. McGough watched as her bird abandoned the ground-level chase, pitched up into the sky, folded her wings into her body, and came crashing down like a radar-guided missile. By the time McGough had hopped back onto her horse and reached Alema, the eagle’s talons were sunk deep into the fox’s head. McGough and Kukan rode back toward the mud-brick hut triumphantly, the scareboy walking beside them with a fox pelt slung over his shoulder.
When a young Kazakh falconer catches her first fox with her first eagle, her community celebrates. So the night after Alema’s first kill, 35 of Kukan’s friends and neighbors crowded into his small hut for a feast to honor McGough and her bird’s accomplishment. They gorged on a freshly slaughtered sheep and knocked back vodka shots into the wee hours.
Before that night, McGough had felt like an outsider in Bayan-Olgii. She was a woman, she was foreign, she couldn’t speak the language. She wasn’t sure whether they accepted her or respected her. But as Kukan and his friends toasted her, McGough sensed a new level of acceptance. “I really felt like, OK, they don’t feel like I’m this weird person who’s trying to be one of them,” she told me. “They think I’m a falconer too.”
The day after McGough and Miles’s unsuccessful hunt in Arnett, the gale-force gusts had only gotten stronger and faster. McGough was feeling fatigued from the long week, and even a golden eagle wasn’t going to be able to do much in such conditions. So McGough decided to take the day off. She had another presentation to prepare for that night, anyway. She’d recently been named executive director of the Falconry Fund—a new “pro-falconry” 501(c)(3) education and conservation group—and she would be introducing its mission to all the present NAFA members. She told me that she’d try to squeeze in a final hunt the next morning.
With the winds howling outside, the Clarion Inn hummed with activity, and I got to take in the sport’s human diversity. As I sat in the atrium, I spotted Dungeons & Dragons types with patchy beards wearing a little too much leather; stone-faced men with bulging arms, camouflage hats, and skintight T-shirts plastered with words like freedom and police; older men with white beards and flannel who had the air of 19th-century naturalists; touchy-feely New Agers whom I overheard talking about the importance of their bird’s “enrichment” activities; earnest young science teachers and animal rehabbers; and plenty of “falconry bums” (think year-round surfers and skiers). They all seemed to be getting along like a very large, proudly eccentric extended family.
McGough is a trained anthropologist (her PhD dissertation is titled “Hunting with Eagles Among Kazakh Pastoralists: A New Model for Ethno-Ornithology and Human-Animal Relations”), and, even before I arrived, she had described to me the diversity of her fellow falconers in ethnographic terms. Like dog owners and their canines, falconers and their birds of prey often share a cultural and class identity, and sometimes a personality. On one end of the spectrum, McGough told me, are the men and women who fly the utilitarian, all-American red-tailed hawk on squirrels—“good-natured rednecks,” she lovingly called them. On the other end are the patricians who fly the snow-white Arctic gyrfalcon, a species that can fetch tens of thousands of dollars from Saudi princes and Emirati sheikhs. Gyrfalconers don’t fly their birds in the backcountry woods, they take them out to hunt sage grouse in the high plains of the American West. “The stereotype is that they’re prim and proper and think they’re part of the nobility,” said McGough, adding that eagle falconers like her are considered “egotistical,” but there were so few of them it was hard to draw conclusions.
Sometimes these subgroups can be prone to cliquishness, but they all share something fundamental: a willingness to prioritize falconry in their lives. This took many forms. Scott McNeff, the NAFA president, had taken over his father’s successful ice cream shop in southern Maine, which allowed him to spend his eight-month off-season hunting with his birds above the tidal flats. McGough’s friend Jeff Fincher made his living teaching skydiving and doing “bird abatement” work, which meant that he had been contracted to use his falcons to scare off geese and pigeons that had taken up residence in downtown Nashville and at the city’s airport. McGough herself had thought of falconry at every decision point in her life. At the NAFA meet, she was on the brink of completing her PhD, and she told me that she was still “shy about getting anything permanent” for fear of impeding her next falconry adventure.
I could understand the appeal of using falconry as a passport to the world as McGough had. And I could grasp the thrill of witnessing the majestic flight of a bird of prey plunging from the sky toward a successful kill. But when I’d talked to hawkers like McGough, McNeff, and Fincher, they had told me how boring most of their non-hawking friends found the sport. A day hunting with a raptor, as I’d witnessed firsthand, often means walking around a field for hours without seeing much more than big skies and brittle grass. Even a good day will produce a few seconds of breathtaking chases for every few hours of waiting. I wondered what it was exactly about the hunt that compelled so many falconers to dedicate their lives to pursuing it.
On the final morning of the NAFA meet, the wind had dropped off, the air had cooled, the sky had brightened into an unblemished cerulean, and McGough decided to go for a final hunt. When she and Miles stepped onto a rolling pasture a few miles from downtown Elk City at 10 a.m., the temperature was 36 degrees and a light breeze blew from the north. The conditions couldn’t have been better for hawking.
A crowd of falconers had come out to help with the hunt, and they fanned out in a horizontal line that stretched 200 feet to one side of McGough. In Arnett, the team of scareboys had numbered five. On that field in Elk City, there were eight. If a jackrabbit were indeed hiding somewhere in a patch of yellowing grass, then there was a good chance the group would turn it up.
It was only a few minutes into the hunt when the first call rang out.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!”
The jackrabbit made a beeline away from McGough and Miles, vaulting toward the edge of the field with lightning-speed leaps. The eagle took off after it, shooting out in front of its prey. Then he hesitated as if he’d lost sight of his quarry. The hare veered from its course, and sprinted off in a new direction. Miles could only watch as the jackrabbit transformed into a far-off speck of churning hind legs. Once again, the eagle had failed and glided back to the ground.
“He’s a little heavier than I’d like,” McGough said. “That’s the way a fat bird flies.”
But as the morning wore on, McGough noticed that something was changing inside her bird. Miles was growing more and more excited. His first chase hadn’t been successful, but it had energized him. He was getting more alert and, maybe, hungrier.
For the next hour, though, it appeared that Miles might have to settle once again for a hand-fed jackrabbit leg. Other falconers had hunted on the same field earlier in the week, and McGough and the scareboys wondered whether the jackrabbits had wised up, moving on to other pastures that were less frequently patrolled by their predators. And then, just a few feet in front of McGough, a jackrabbit leaped out of the grass, pirouetted 180 degrees, and ran like hell upwind.
Miles launched off McGough’s arm, and, like a 747 chasing a Formula 1 race car, he made a wide, laborious turn in the hopes of regaining a line on his nimbler prey. As the hare darted away, the chase looked like it would be over before it really began. The hare just had too great a head start. But once the eagle had redirected himself, he erased the jackrabbit’s lead. Suddenly, a dark shadow fell over the hare, and this time, Miles’s prey had no time for evasive maneuvers. The prairie dragon folded his wings into a diving position and plunged toward the ground, disappearing into a tall thicket of grass. For a long moment, there was only stillness. Then, McGough took off sprinting in her eagle’s direction.
In H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald talks about falconry as a “willed loss of control,” a kind of natural-world form of gambling.
“You pour your heart, your skill, your very soul into a thing—into training a hawk, learning the form in racing or the numbers in cards—then relinquish control over it. That is the hook,” MacDonald writes. “Once the dice rolls, the horse runs, the hawk leaves the fist, you open yourself to luck, and you cannot control the outcome … You feel safe because you are entirely at the world’s mercy.”
As McGough ran toward her bird, the result of Miles’s plunge still uncertain, she could rejoice in the beauty of his flight, but after dedicating months of her life to training her moody, half-tamed eagle, she craved more. Then she saw him. The great bird was sitting on the ground, his hackles up, his wings extended in a protective posture, his head bobbing toward Earth with the fearsome tearing motions of his beak. McGough let out a cry, “He got it!”