Real life: Hunting with eagles

Frank Riedinger

In western Mongolia, Kazakh nomads lovingly preserve an age-old tradition.

In the Altai Mountains, at about 2,000 metres’ elevation, lies the provincial capital Ölgii.

This far western corner of Mongolia is where the annual Golden Eagle Festival takes place, celebrating the beginning of hunting season, which runs from October until April.


The most graceful landing on the arm of a hunter is determined by a judge and rewarded with points.

For this discipline, which takes place on the festival’s first day, an assistant releases the golden eagle from the peak of a mountain while the owner calls his bird to him with a series of loud cries.

On the second day, the eagles must land on a decoy being dragged behind a horse. Both man and bird collect points.


Berkutschi is Kazakh and means “eagle hunter”. The Mongolian Berkutschi hunt solely with female golden eagles. They’re larger, more aggressive and more reliable than the males.


Hunting with eagles used to be a man’s business. A few years ago, young Aisholpan Nurgair began cultivating this tradition for women too.

In last year’s documentary The Eagle Huntress, the teenager “wins” the festival. 


The Berkutschi either steals his eagle as a chick right out of its nest, or just catches a young bird with a net. However, the tradition requires that the birds are released into nature after only a few years. 


Winter is hunting season. The Berkutschi and their eagles hunt mainly foxes and Pallas’s cats—a type of wild feline native to Central Asia.

The remaining time the Berkutschi are occupied by managing their grazing animals and navigating the nomadic lifestyle that these herds dictate.


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