Monday, May 30, 2011

Hunting Eagles

If there is a common image of eagle falconry it is that of a fur- hatted Kazakh or Kyrgiz nomad on a short furry horse, hunting foxes or wolves; this has been reinforced by my own book, by the wonderful art of Vadim Gorbatov, and even by the BBC TV show referenced here a few weeks ago.

But like many good things, "eagling" has been invented several times, almost independently. In the twenties the legendary English setter breeder William Humphrey flew a female golden and is said to have taken over one hundred foxes in Wales with the help of his dogs, but he had no disciples. Freidrich Remmler flew eagles in Finland and Russia and even the US, but his only pupil was reclusive Dan McCarron (one of the best, who I hope will someday write a memoir), who knew him when he was a child. Also in the US, Charles Browning, fed up with eagles taking his gyrs, trained the legendary tiercel "Messiah" to hunt sage grouse from the soar.

Meanwhile, in England, Alan Gates accomplished the improbable feat of taking game with an eagle, breeding her, and then doing the same with her son. He was the first westerner recognized as a "berkutchi" by the Kazakhs.

(And for now, we will leave aside more exotic sorts like traditional Japanese eagling, or the kind from Africa, started perhaps by the late artist David Reid Henry and his crowned eagle and reaching its most baroque form in the "Brush War", when Rhodesian troopers flew eagles at night from half- tracks while carrying automatic weapons). I believe one crowned may still be used in Zimbabwe for monkey control...

But in Germany and Austria after the war a real shared tradition grew up, one that spread to eastern Europe and now features some of the best flights that exist. In Hunting Eagle: The Development of German and Austrian Eagle Falconry, Martin Hollinshead chronicles the little- known (at least in the west) invention and spread of this demanding but incomparably exciting form of falconry, which is now so advanced it is hard to believe that most of its history is post- 1960!

If not quite "present at the creation" Hollinshead was on the scene soon after, has flown eagles over there, and knows the principal actors and innovators. As a long- time advocate and practicioner of quality hawking for ground game (see other books on his site), he understands the prejudices eagle austringers had to overcome. As recently as ten years ago, I was still being assured by people who had never seen an eagle fly that they were clumsy, lazy, vicious, and incapable of stylish flights -- this despite the fact that I had seen such flights in Asia and America. Hollinshead's meticulous and informed account should dispel such pernicious myths for good. Not only does he document how mysteries of training and breeding eagles were solved, the second more or less for the first time; he also chronicles the rise of the great eagle festival in Opocno in the Czech Republic. Good eagles, as many have seen in videos, can take roe deer with the style and dash that a goshawk brings to hares, but also are agile enough to fly that quarry as well.

Eagle falconry continues to evolve. For a new interview of our friend Lauren, not only the first female berkutchi but the first westerner to train as a Kazakh eagler, see this post at Rebecca O'Connor's Operation Delta Duck. With new moves afoot to ban the use of eagles in falconry, let us hope the voices of such advocates as Dan McCarron, Al Gates, Martin Hollinshead and Lauren McGough are heard above the baying of the ignorant.

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