Golden Eagle Migrations

Researchers recently discovered the importance of Montana’s Big Belt Mountains (near Bozeman) as a raptor migration flyway, and their first major monitoring effort for this flyway began in the fall of 2015, and was repeated in fall 2016. This route recorded the greatest number of migrating golden eagles of any site in North America, with 2,620 golden eagles recorded, with a peak of 24 goldens per hour!

The team also recorded another important behavior: Golden eagles continued to migrate at night under a full moon.

And if the golden eagle information wasn’t enough, the researchers also documented all 17 raptor species known to migrate through the region – all on one day!

The Big Belts are a 75-mile long mountain range in west-central Montana, just north of the Bridger Mountains, which are well-known for raptor migrations. The raptor migration counts were conducted by Ronan Dugan and Jeff Grayum of the Golden Eagle Migration Survey and the report on the Fall 2016 counts can be found here.

The First Eagle Huntress?

However admirable Ashiolpan seems (and she is), and however fine the movie the Eagle Huntress is (and I suspect it is, and I want to see it), SHE IS NOT THE FIRST EAGLE HUNTRESS. This mistaken belief is particularly promulgated by American reviewers and I know I shouldn’t expect much of them; I should only be happy they’re saying a form of hunting is good.

But for the record, with leaving out dubious semi-contenders like Princess Nirgigma in the 20s, who I very much doubt trained her own eagles, or Frances Flint Hamerstrom, who as far as I know never hunted with her eagle or participated in Asian culture, the FIRST eagle huntress is Lauren McGough, originally of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, who I originally helped achieve her dreams when she was 16, when she went over and hunted with the late Aralbai. She was so taken with this that she won a Fulbright Scholarship and spent a year in remotest Bayaan Olgii Aimag in the westernmost point of Mongolia learning both the Kazakh and Mongol languages while training her first eagle, Alema (“Milky Way”) which she trapped herself. She subsequently caught 30-odd foxes with her, plus other game. She has not yet written up her experiences, but everyone who knows her knows that she is the real thing. She’s hunting right now with her eagle…

Lauren at 16 with Aralbai
With Alema soon after capture

A contrarian view on eagle conservation

I had published this on Jameson Parker’s blog in response to a question and it occurred that it would make an interesting little essay. But some have misunderstood it, so let me give you my conclusions before my reasoning:

I don’t think (Golden) eagles are in any way endangered, but I support protection for them.

I don’t think wind power companies and other utilities should get an automatic free pass  on killing eagles.

I don’t think any Indian tribes without a strong religious reason for taking eagles should be allowed to do so (I am encouraged that at least one pueblo now keeps live eagles, and attempts to breed them). I think that commercial exploitation of eagles and other birds of prey for their feathers by anyone is deplorable, and ideally should be ended. In today’s world, I doubt that it will.

The legal take of no more than six eagles for falconry was something that put less pressure on the population than any other conceivable use, and even added to the Indians and wind farms, would have a negligible effect. In all likelihood allowing ANY falconer who qualified to take an eagle would not make any difference. If officials were really worried about this, they could mandate that trained eagles be released into the wild after ten years as the Kazakhs do.

In the ideal world, conservation decisions should be based on biology. In our real world, they can’t be, not entirely anyway. Still, using a little information and pretending to a bit less hypocrisy would be welcome. And another thought: the educational value of trained eagles is not to be dismissed.

So, here it is:

I have a bit of a heretical stance about Golden eagles re wind farms. I dislike the amount of kills allowed for wind farms. But whether or
not the population is harmed needs at least two questions answered. One
is how many (Golden) eagles there are; the other is what else takes them
out of (breeding) circulation.

The first is never discussed except among biologists– it is as though
certain enviros do not want to ever say anything optimistic. The number
of Bald eagles got brought low, partly by persistent pesticides, and
now increases as it becomes ever more tolerant of human society. But the
number of known Golden nests (or rather the reasonably accepted
extrapolated number ) is AND MAY ALWAYS HAVE BEEN almost inconceivably
high, so high I am not inclined to quote it without access to the actual
data, except five figures of pairs in North America. (There are two
nesting pairs I know of within ten miles of where I write these notes).
This is never publicized, but you can track it down. The data is not
from livestock or energy apologists, either. Remember, there is an
untouched Arctic population, and ones in Labrador that seem to eat
herons in breeding season. The golden is so adaptable that there is a
Greek population that eats mostly tortoises. I doubt wind turbines will
dent those numbers or scare them away.

The Texans used to shoot hundreds every year and it seems to have
done little biological harm. Now wind farms are allowed to kill several
hundred a year, and Navajos and other Native peoples are allowed not
only unlimited hunting but utterly unlimited access to such species as Red- tailed hawks, not to train but to sell feathers. Which works out in
practice that every delinquent kid on a troubled reservation sees a
hawk on a pole and shoots it. Then probably sells it. While there are
serious religious uses of eagles by the Pueblos, there is also an
internal market, really illicit, in feathers for tribal dance outfits,
competitive and lucrative- and some sympathetic judges have decided
these commercial competitions are protected too. (Meanwhile one pueblo
has modified its ceremonies to no longer kill eagles, and has hired a
biologist to teach them how to keep them in a healthy way!)

Many activist types hate falconry as intolerable meddling with
romantic symbols, but a falconer’s eagle is not even lost from the
population– only “on loan” so to speak. The Kazakhs I rode with in Asia
let them go to breed after ten years, and eagles commonly live to over
30. Until now falconers were a allowed a take of  6 wild-caught Golden eagles a year, only from areas in Wyoming and the Dakotas with
proven sheep predation problems. Right now the government is inclined to
end this benign “use”. I wish that moralists and humane activists would
not go after the tiny portion of eagles allowed to falconers! If we
allow a small kill harvest from the tribes, an unknown yet amount for
wind farms, oil wells, roads and such, and want a healthy population… we
HAVE to set fairly rigid quotas to be safe. But known numbers could
easily allow a live take of up to six (or ten or whatever– except I
don’t think that there will ever be that many eaglers), some of which
would eventually even breed.

Meanwhile, in the warden- free lands of most reservations eagles
still exist only because of apathy– there is no protection. Ranchers
under 60 are more or less benign, and don’t shoot them (wolves are far
more threatening in both reality and reputation), but some angry young
rez kids kill every sitting bird they see, and sell the feathers no
matter what, as a demonstration that they “own” them Some tribes have
made clear falconers shouldn’t get any quota, because they are religious
symbols! A bit of Googling would show us the old regs, under which we
existed and complained for decades, while Texans shot hundreds or maybe
even thousands (see Don Scheuler’s Incident at Eagle Ranch), were uninformed– they now seem almost as unimaginable as
photos of the aerial dogfights with eagles when they were hunted from
planes. But, counterintuitively, they were probably biologically harmless
in that they didn’t– because they couldn’t– wipe out eagles. Morally
though, making dead eagles a commodity for anyone looks worse to me than
wind farms; commerce can drive extinction like stoking a fire.

        (Photo above from Life Magazine in 1953, from an eagle shooter’s view in Texas)

Why not reasonable quotas for falconers’ birds? Fewer privileges for
Indians, at least ones with no religious stake, as those don’t have the
built- in cultural reverence? And less posturing from anti- wind people
at least about eagles aka Charismatic Megafauna (the turbines may
actually be worse for bats, a group far more threatened than the Golden

Eagle Dreamers

I must assume that ALL my readers have seen some version of this:

 I have gotten over 100 emails, and they are still coming in. The one most saw was a BBC article (see David Zincavage’s blog), but I like the photographer’s, and his background info. It seems that the wild men of central Asia, as pragmatic as can be, have not opposed the few brave young women who have decided to take up this difficult but thrilling way of life (not exactly a”sport” by the way, as some call it, unless at the games at the annual fall “fiestas” there and in the ‘Stans).

I was delighted by the photos, and the whole phenomenon. But I thought the real pioneer was being ignored– Lauren McGough, who contacted us when she was 16, went out to hunt for a month with the late Aralbai, “The Coolest Man in the World” (Google it up), then returned on a Fulbright to spend a year there as an apprentice, then another year back and forth to the ‘Stans and Mongolia. She is now in Scotland writing her doctoral thesis, and has continued flying eagles on the plains here and in Scotland.

Lauren is not worried, though she has a sensible distrust of the accuracy of the press: “The photos are just brilliant of course – I recognize in that smile the pure joy of flying an eagle! I always have mixed feelings about media articles of Mongolian eagle culture, though. Its hard not to be possessive of “my” subject!…  If I can find the funds, perhaps visiting the girl myself would be a compelling epilogue. It in a way, it is like coming full-circle, from my own 14-year old self that used to daydream her red-tail was an eagle. Or something!”

After I got her notes I wondered: Olgii Aimag is not too big; could the young Kazakh girl have heard about the strange American berkutchi? Could it have swayed her father?  Could she have seen this not- very tall American with the huge eagle named after the Milky Way?

There is going to be a book, and it will have insights I never dreamed of. Meanwhile, back in the USA, the government is considering shutting down the (at most) 6 eagle annual falconry take, while wind farms and eagle- killing natives are given a pass. Sometimes I think I should go off to live and die in Asia, where eagle dreamers get some respect.

Traditional Sport in Kyrgizstan

Sent by Sir Terence Clark:

UPDATE: I was struck by the smooth gait of the horses and the comfortable seat of the riders in one sequence. I am no great horseman, so was gratified when old cowhand and world class photographer Jay Dusard wrote: “The most amazing segment in the film was the horses that were shown at extremely fast trotting. Very fast and smooth traveling, with riders staying nearly level. Posting the trot was practically indistinguishable, with some of the riders posting ever so slightly. At least one of the horses was pacing, rather than trotting.”

It is official

You might have figured it out in comments below but it is official: because the Feds are allowing a three- decade exemption for wind farms to kill as many eagles as they “need” to, and because they exert no pressure on tribal use (right and understandable for religious practice, but ignoring the profitable if clandestine traffic in feathers for dance costumes), falconers will no longer be allowed to catch “up to six” eagles for falconry in areas of proven depredation, exactly reversing the win- win scenario Cat details below.

Nobody ever took six a year, an infinitesimal part of the breeding surplus; ranchers had proven predators removed; falconers got the companionship of one of the world’s formidable predators, often for decades, and the chance to participate in one of if not THE oldest falconry tradition on earth, at least six thousand years old.

Presumably if we do not fight this it means “for three decades?” Or forever?

And why in hell not allow trapping in wind farms?

No more of this!


Andy was right about the photo of Libby a bit below, but didn’t guess the place. The photo was taken in 1966, when she was digging on the important early American Hell Gap archaeological site in southeastern Wyoming, east of Guernsey, under the leadership of the legendary Cynthia Irwin- Williams.

Libby got her degree, and dug at some other early American sites, including one near Cabezon in New Mexico then called “Anasazi Origins”. But eventually she left and pursued other careers, from Outward Bound instructor and Himalayan trekking guide to professional private chef and head of Patagonia mail order. She still has the best eye for human artifacts and tiny tools I have ever seen, but it is mostly just for fun, and we leave them in the field.

The enormous collection of tools and bones ended up at Harvard for a while, but when our friend Laura Niven was going for her advanced degrees in Wyoming , almost 20 years ago, she found that they had been “repatriated”. We found out when she called us in excitement, having found Libby’s name and that of her older sister, Elizabeth and Eleanor Adam, on many of the labels.

In recent years, what with hanging out with the Farmers (Reid and Connie are BOTH archaeologists) and working with the Forest Service as “site guardians”, we have again gotten interested in such things, though as a biologist manque, I favor the  end of the Pleistocene with its monsters and “first contacts”,  Paleoindian  better than “Pueblan”. So when we knew we were going up to Wyoming, we asked Carlos to set us up some time with theGeorge Frison Institute. Frison himself was someone who wrote one of my favorite American anthropology texts, Survival by Hunting.

 One illustration in the book is of particular interest. Ranch- born, Frison knew that eagles were common and effective predators on pronghorn, though it is still hard to convince some people today. A rancher friend of his painted the scene, which closely resembles three wild kills I have had described to me.

The woman who was teasingly referred to as “The Mysterious Libby” was welcomed to the collection by Marcel Kornfeld, who also found that picture of Libby. By the time we left, she was considering returning to dig as a volunteer next summer. I hope to get her to tell a few tales of her digging days in a bit.