Beginnings and Endings in Mongolia

Lauren is coming home next week, visiting us soon, and will doubtless be blogging for herself.

In addition to training her eagle, she has done a lot of research,and to my envy got to meet the chronicler of the Gyrfalcon, Eugene Potapov, author of my favorite ornithological monograph (see link two posts down):

” I saw on the blog your discussion on Sakers. I just thought I’d mention that I ran into Eugene Potapov at this Asian Raptor conference. He is undoubtedly, one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. I really enjoyed talking Goldens and Steller’s with him, and the hazards of field work in Siberia. He is also hilarious. After I told him what University I went to, he says, totally deadpan, “Lauren, I propose a study, where we go to this Oak-luh-homa, and measure the redness of the necks.”

Speaking of “redness of neck” she also went out to Olgii to say farewell to our old friend and drinking buddy Aralbai, the hardest- core of eaglers, and also to pick up a new baby for him to train and release his ten year old to breed, as is Kazakh custom. (The birds live thirty or forty years). That’s him with the Mongol cowboy hat.

Lauren again:

“Aralbai looks like a total cowboy out there, on his horse scouting for eagle nests – I didn’t feel that far from home!

“Here is one more photo, when we released a 10 year old female back into the wild. She was trapped as a turnik, a two-year old, and subsequently flown for eight seasons, taking many foxes. I felt privileged to wave goodbye to her, as she went back out into the wild. That’s falconry!”

Just us chickens

I now have a close personal relationship with two broods of sage grouse, and Jim says I’ve got to end it soon. I know he’s right, but I hate to have to do that.

The two broods – one with five youngsters, and one with six, range close together and I started to see them on a section of state ground near an old loading pen at dawn and dusk, so a few weeks ago I started seeking them out. Of course they were alarmed to begin with, when I pulled up in my noisy truck. But I took photos through the driver’s side window, and talked to them, and they soon calmed. I was gradually able to get out of the truck and walk around them, and to sit on the ground in front of them. I talk to them in my human language, and they talk back in their grouse song. What floors me (and should probably embarrass me) is that I never realized how similar these grouse are to domestic chickens we raised on the farm when I was a child. They act and vocalize just like chickens. As a child, I had a favorite hen named Half N Half (she was half white, half red) who used to accompany me on short walks, and would sit on my lap while I read aloud to her. Yes I was reading to a chicken, long before reading therapy animals came in vogue.

My experience with the two sage grouse broods took me back to my childhood. I have been completely tickled when the adolescent grouse walked up beside me to check out the yellow thread hemming my pantleg, titling their heads to the side to watch a hawk fly overhead, being very vocal in song as they take dust baths, and preening their feathers, using a tuff of sagebrush to break the wind. The two hens are far more cautious, but remain about 20 feet away, strolling slowly around the edge of their broods, calling to them and watching me.

I haven’t fed these birds to make them tame. I’ve just been near them in a non-threatening way, and apparently it’s been enough to gain acceptance. I’ve had an extraordinary time getting to know and adore these interesting birds, and will soon start making myself go by them without stopping. They don’t need to know me, but it’s been a pleasure to get to know them just a little.

“Big Black Nemesis”; or, what is an Altai Falcon anyway?

A while ago, LabRat at Atomic Nerds started a series of posts on the evolution of sex among other things. The first was appropriately called “Shuffling Your Cards: Why Sex?”

Since in science we are both mad nerds obsessed with evolutionarily odd strategies like parthenogenesis in local lizards (and the hybridization that may have started it) we were soon engaged in the longest, most intense, and perhaps most digressive scientific correspondence of my life or at least the last ten years– both fun and exhausting. Suffice to quote one late night two- liner from her to me that we did NOT follow up: “I know I am cat-vacuuming at this point but this post will be the death of me.  I just found your ZW parthenogenetic snakes.” I had actually predicted their existence! There were more such, down to today.

We were both interested in the nature of species, and therefore such things as the ambiguous speciation of the genus Canis. I introduced her to the mysterious Four Corners of the Altai, where Gyrfalcons and Saker falcons, two species that according to their “monographer” Potapov were imperfectly separated at the end of the Ice Age, may still interbreed, and even more controversially may segregate into distinct types that are named and valued differently by Arab falconers when caught on migration.

Before I get into the mystery birds of the Altai let me show you the theoretical “parent” species. The Gyr, whether white, gray, or black, is a huge bulky bird, both fast and strong. Here is an example from John Burchard’s years in Arabia, being dubiously contemplated by a little Barbary, a sort of desert Peregrine that is the smallest species flown there and that gets little respect from the Arabs, who prefer large quarry. All Gyrs flown in the Middle East are domestically bred.

For a look at typical Sakers, see the Mongolian young being banded by Lauren here. They will lighten up in adult plumage but “brown, streaky” is a fair description of either plumage.

LabRat has done an incredible synthesis of known and speculative biology and maybe a bit of anthropology here, so I’ll confine myself to examples of big falcons in the Almaty breeding center in Kazakhstan, many looking like hybrids (and most utterly unlike Lauren’s birds or the Sakers in western bird books), as well as one wild one near there described to me by the ornithologist who photo’d it as an “Altai falcon”; that is, a wild example of WHATEVER these mysterious birds are. The captive birds, in all their variety, are from Kazakhstan’s diverse habitats too.

I should say before someone else brings it up that much (manufactured?) political controversy surrounds both the more common Sakers and these birds. “Altais” have at various times have been dismissed as human- influenced hybrids, while simultaneously being called nearly extinct; actually, they are probably a naturally- overlapping breeding population extending over a vast range. The admirers of “regular” Sakers (which contrary to wild claims do not command six- figure prices; I have bought a good one for $750!) are accused of being at the root of a vast and improbable conspiracy to smuggle them out of their homeland, and used as a fund- raising tool for at least one rather shady group. I think none of these statements are true. I am not denying some smuggling of the most desirable varieties of both “Altais” and other Sakers goes on, but I doubt that it is widespread or organized– for one thing, most who make these accusations don’t mention how vast, physically inaccessible, and politically divided their range is. Do not bother me with “Save the Falcons”; check out “Falco” or Middle East Falcon Research Group first to read about people engaged in actual work that helps the birds. I think Sakers face far greater threats when the Mongolian government broadcasts tons of poisoned seed from airplanes, in a futile, expensive attempt to eliminate gerbils. Meanwhile, at the other end of the line, Gulf Arabs are learning to train the vastly cheaper, legal domestic equivalents. Falconry is still, in the words of James I of England, “a great stirrer- up of passions”.

Back to the birds, with a sigh of relief. First: a huge (high 40- ounce? more?) dark female, the size of a Gyr but with, perhaps, a bit of the Saker’s slightly lankier build. In honor of Shriekback’s song, with lyrics pertaining to several of our themes (“Big black Nemesis/ Parthenogenesis..”) I think of her as Nemesis, one hell of a name for a hunting hawk. She is either what the Arabs call an “Adham” or the even larger and darker “Sinjari”. Both can resemble dark Gyrs; some are built heavier, like the Gyr in the first photo, though the Arab falconers find them hardier than Gyrs.

Second: a wild bird photographed near Almaty by ornithologist Andrey Kovalenko and ID’d as an “Altai”, also huge and even less determinate as to species.

These two are definitely Sakers but uncommonly pale, named “Ashgar” and described as “white” by the Arabs that love them.

If the black bird of this mixed pair doesn’t have Gyr genes I will eat it uncooked. With its feathers on.

Despite appearances, this woman is NOT a Kazakh taxonomist after a long day of trying to classify the birds of the Altai.

Learned behavior

This week was an interesting one on the Wyoming rangelands. The sage grouse broods are doing well, with the now adolescent-sized birds that accompanying their mothers. Most of the broods I’ve seen have five or six young, so it’s been a good year for chick production.

The pronghorn antelope fawns are growing as well, but their long legs look out of proportion with their young bodies at this stage of growth. Three times this week I’ve watched pronghorns jumping over a woven-wire fence, something that supposedly happens only rarely since pronghorn prefer to go under fences. The first time Jim and I witnessed this, we were driving near the allotment fence when I noticed a line of pronghorn trailing along the far side of the fence. When the group approached a low spot in the woven-wire, the first doe jumped the fence and cleared it. I realized the rest of the herd might follow, so I stopped to watch as the next two does took their turns, easily clearing the wire. The fawns did not follow, and at that point, our presence was noticed and the animals hurried away from the fenceline.

On Friday, I saw a pronghorn doe and her two fawns near the same fence again, and watched as the doe jumped over the fence in the same spot. I was running late, and didn’t have time to stop and watch the behavior of the rest of the herd.

On Saturday morning, I went back by the fence again, and this time saw one doe with three fawns. By the time I arrived, one fawn was on my side of the fence, with the remainder of the group on the far side. Hoping not to disturb them, I parked the truck at some distance from the group and sat and watched. After a few minutes of staring in my direction, the doe finally moved forward, jumping the fence. She patiently waited as the other two fawns nervously milled and finally jumped single-file over the fence to join her and the third fawn as they moved away.

This was an excellent lesson in learned behavior, and gives me hope for the ability of this species to adapt to human changes in its environment.

After the Hunt

My naturalization as a Louisianan must be near complete.  With two local friends and my hawk, Ernie, we recently made an appearance on chef John Folse‘s cooking show, A Taste of Louisiana.

The show closed a neat loop for me that began a couple years ago with the publication of my wife’s (one and only) rabbit recipe in Folse’s encyclopedic volume After the Hunt.  Along with Shelly’s “Breaded Rabbit Mullenix,” Folse & Co. included a surprisingly complete section on falconry in Louisiana, featuring photos of Ernie as a young hawk and a few of me grinning with fresh-caught rabbits. The book was (and remains) a best seller here, and being recognized from its pages by friends is a recurring pleasure.
Early last year I received a call from the Folse company with word that John intended to focus a season of his televised cooking program on the hunting and recipes featured in his book. I was invited to participate, and despite near-zero expectation of success, offered to take Folse and film crew out to one of my local hunting spots and see if we could do any good.
Well, we did some good and in fact caught a swamp rabbit right on cue as if the hunt was scripted. What’s more, the camera angles lined up, the light held, the flight was in focus and the crew was close enough to the action to catch it all on film.
This segment (which the film crew referred to as “the package”) would be edited into the studio portion of the show to be filmed later. Having now filmed the kitchen segment and seen the falconry package on the big screens, I’m even more amazed.
The complete episode will air locally in late September or early October and will be the first of about 35 half-hour shows featuring Louisiana cooking and hunting—activities long honored and well paired here in Louisiana. Next year, the series will be picked up by PBS nationwide. Watch for it, and bon appetite!


For the first time I MAY be able to put in my photos rather than have Matt or Reid do it, though there are still problems–it took three tries to get the image in (telling me it WAS there twice, but it wasn’t!), and it put the image at the top rather than the bottom as I had “asked”. I think the combination of Gilanet and this slightly erratic computer are to blame.

Must consult further with Matt and Reid. Meanwhile, scroll down three posts to a splendid ancient Chinese image of a falconer and his tazi…


Andrew Campbell of The Regal Vizsla, who blogs on bird dogs and sometimes Mongolia, came through with his boys on the way to a training session in the mountains of Arizona.

He brought good talk and a bottle of Applejack, something wonderful from New York state we had never tried. His boys were fascinated by my pigeons in the pair cages; as they are NYC dogs he hasn’t trained on pigeons!

He also brought by a gun I’ll blog on later. Hope he stops through on the way home…

Three shotguns (and a look at a fourth)

…which will do almost everything.

First, a magnum on the French Darne sliding-breech action. A little expensive to shoot, and a bit “kicky”, but able to take everything up to the largest birds.

Second, a Stephen Grant Best London pigeon gun, with a sidelever action and rebounding hammers in the last stage of hammer evolution. It was made in 1879 and is in nearly mint– NOT restored!–condition (perhaps hidden away after someone died)?) This is a heavy gun with long chambers and is able to shoot modern ammo, despite myths about the weakness of Damascus. It is my sit-down dove gun and swings beautifully with its heavy and rather odd original 31″ barrels (I checked this detail with Atkin, Grant and Lang, who still have all the records and will back it up.)

Finally, what until recently was my hill quail and walking gun: a 16-gauge Manufrance Ideal, light enough to carry, stout enough to shoot at anything at reasonable distances.

Since I am less mobile and broker than ever, I sometimes think I should get brave and sell some or all of them, and buy something like Andrew Campbell’s “Sidley”, actually made by Webley and Scott. It’s a 20-bore that weighs only 5 pounds even though it has 30″ barrels, and is proofed for 7/8 of an ounce of shot. Its light weight would be easy for me to carry, even when I’m walking badly, and the long barrels would still smooth my swing. It really is a beauty — no engraving, nothing superfluous, just what Tom McGuane called, describing an elegant skiff, “a simple linear gesture”.

Prince Xanghui

I have seen black and white line drawings of a falconer with a tazi from Prince Xanghui’s tomb in Xian, on the far eastern end of the Silk Road. Though I used one on my letterhead, the hawk was unidentifiable. I assumed it was a Goshawk which is still flown in the area and throughout northern Xinjiang.

Recently I got a much better colored image, which shows more clearly that it is indeed a Goshawk. It also has an even better image of the tazi or, if you prefer, the saluki. Notice the odd Roman-nosed profile. It is still present in the tazis of the area today and was noticed disparagingly by a commenter in one of the posts below who asked if I thought “sheepsheads” were ancient. Well, here’s one before 800 A.D.– a bit after 700 I think.

Dr John Burchard on Breed Standards

My friend John Burchard, PhD, postdoc at the Max Planck Institute under Konrad Lorenz, years in Arabia with saluki and falcon, formerly involved in shows and still a presence in open field coursing and an attendant at conferences on dog genetics, (and owner of two of my pups (;-), on the inherent deficiencies of standards.

I have been viciously attacked for printing heretical opinions like this and those of Jess (below), and apparently denounced on FaceBook. Don’t waste your typing fingers or your time. I didn’t start this war, but I have no intention of giving up. There is more where this came from, including from John, and nobody can call HIM a “beginner”. Here he is– Steve:

I am more than skeptical about written breed standards. I don’t know a
single one that doesn’t have at least one piece of complete nonsense in it. In
some cases the standard may prescribe proportions which are not reached by ANY
individuals of the breed in question. With the best intentions in the world,
even quite knowledgeable people get carried away in standard writing. I don’t
know any exception. I was intimately involved in not one but TWO attempts by
the FCI to rewrite the Saluki standard. The things that happened there, with
the greatest breed experts, would have been hysterically funny if they were not
so sad, and so damaging to the breed. Most of the people involved were well
meaning – and some were not, but that’s another story.

I will offer two links here. One is to pictures of the “Sieger show” champions
of the German Shepherd Dog, each year from 1899 to the present. The standard
has not changed, and breeders and judges think they are following the standard,
but the dogs have changed a great deal, and not for the better (the original GSD
was a wonderful, upright, athletic dog; the modern show-line GSD is a physical
and mental cripple, “dog in front and frog behind” as some wag put it. Note
that this is in Germany, where the dogs are required to have a working
qualification before they can enter this competition. The work requirement has
had to be scaled back, because the modern banana-backed dogs cannot jump the
high obstacles their ancestors could … see and scroll all the
way down to the bottom to see what they looked like at the beginning …

The people who breed those dogs will tell you they are breeding to the standard
(!). Apparently they actually believe that.

The other is to an article by Gabriele Meissen, DVM, Ph.D., on the “Azawakh” (a
Saluki/Tazi relative in the Sahara and Sahel) and the effects of using a
too-restrictive standard. Gabi is still too much under the influence of the
show mentality, and there are a few minor errors (the Wadi Azouag is mostly in
the Niger Republic, not in Mali, it is a now dry valley that joins the Niger a
little southeast of Gao; I’ve been there, but that was in 1965, before the big
Sahel drought, and the nomads with their dogs were then out in the desert, not
in camps), but it is an interesting and thoughtful article by an intelligent
well-informed person about the problems of an animal I tend to call the
“Eurowakh” (it is not very much like the original). See

It’s important to understand these problems are built into the system. Good
intentions will not help you avoid them. You have to avoid the system, instead.

I have a lot more to say about these things, but maybe that will do for