I dwelt on that statistic as I held said eagle. Huge and majestic, it was a live weight sat on my outstretched be-gloved hand. We (myself and a group of assorted Flemish bird watchers) had just paid 700 SOM (about £7) each to watch the Kyrgyz eagle hunter Ruslan fly his bird. We also got to see it hunt. For this, Ruslan’s father, himself an eagle hunter, released a live rabbit, which we watched Caracus (“black eye”) swoop on, pin, and start to eat. The rabbit died at some point, although it wasn’t immediately. It formed a fairly brutal sight, watching fur being ripped out before skin was torn and flesh rendered. This however was tempered somewhat by this tenderness shown by Ruslan. After legging it back down the hill from where he had flown the eagle from, he knelt beside it and helped the bird with its food. Knife and fingers helped the bird pry flesh from bone; he cooed softly to the bird. He talks to it as a parent talks to a child, encouraging, chiding, assisting. It was a little beacon of sweetness among the otherwise fairly bleak scene of death, drizzle, goat-spotted hills and the Flemish hired 4x4s.
Of the two eagles Ruslan showed us, 1 was caught when it was around 2 years old, the other was taken from a nest. This creates 2 quite different birds. The former is harder to domesticate, but will never consider attacking people. The nest plucked-bird is easier to train, but shows less fear of the human handler. Regardless of their origin, birds are released when they are around 15-20 years old as, apparently like horses, they start to forget (or forget to respect) their trainer, becoming un-bidable. This also has the highly desired side-effect of keeping up the population of breeding age eagles. Catching fleet-footed rabbits on mountain sides is difficult without eagles. But not just rabbits; small deer too. Foxes as well. Wolves even. 2 English and 8 Flemish eyebrows raised. “Juvenile wolves, surely? “. “Yes, and adult wolves”. 10 eye brows climb a little higher. “That I would like to see “ says one, backed by murmurs of agreement. We’re all here because this is something authentic, something traditionally Kyrgyz, but also because a big (2 meter wingspan) extant dinosaur with a hooked beak and fearsome talons is, frankly, cool.
I’ve read the moving “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald, but getting close to something like this was special. And I got close early on in an unexpected way. Earlier I had hopped into Ruslan’s car to head out of town to fly the birds. Sat next to me was none other than Caracus. He was hooded and perched where the other back seat should’ve been. Behind us, in the boot, also hooded and perching, was Ruslan’s other eagle, whose name translated as “black eagle” but I forget it precisely. At some point Caracus’ long brown tail feathers pressed into my leg, and I wondered what its talons feel like pressed into flesh. That must be part of the appeal for the handlers, directing this rawly dangerous animal. They compete them too, although the specifics of that I am unsure of. A race, points based? I do not think you would risk setting two of these birds free together, so it must be some kind of rating of the ability to take out certain prey. Gundog-trials are similar: dogs marked down for over running, going after the wrong dummy, zigging when they should have zagged. I clearly remember the wily golden retriever “Ben of Codicote” plucking an elusive dummy from a thicket which the other contestants had missed. Trotting back contentedly with his prize in his mouth, glares in the eyes of the other competitors, a pitter-patter of applause in the hands of the onlookers.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of gundogs do not spend their time competing, and I imagine captive eagles do not covert a stash of rosettes. The truth may have a more utilitarian side yes, they help feed us, but eagles are also bloody cool. Big, feathered, reptilian-eyed, somewhat trained hungry fox-catchers, and bloody cool. Ruslan carefully replaces the hood, and gets the bird back into the boot of his hatchback. His father is cutting up the remains of the rabbit for later. The rain is still drizzling. The hills are as goat-spotted as they were. The Flemish hired 4x4s still squat by the roadside. But I feel lighter. Maybe it is the lack of its weight on my arm. Or maybe it picked up a bit of me and carried it away into the hills. I hope they do get released at some point. I hope they get to soar free over the Kyrgyz mountains. I’d be terribly disappointed if Ruslan did not allow them that. Terribly disappointed in us all.