Art of training berkuts
Animals have always been playing an important role in the life of nomadic people. The tradition of hunting with birds of prey (predatory birds mainly living in the mountains), dates to the end of 12th century. Although many species of birds are breeding by hunters for this purpose (hawks, falcons …), the most preferable and prized is golden eagle or “berkut”. This animals hunt mostly rabbits, foxes and lynxes and some of them are able to kill a wolf. Hunters with golden eagle – “Berkutchi” – can provide a lot of food for family and that´s why they are highly respected in Kyrgyz society. Hunters prefer female eagles, since they are bigger and more suitable for hunting wolves. Good trained “berkut” is able to get 25 foxes, 3-4 lynxes and a few wolves in one hunting season, which lasts for 4 months.
If “berkuts” are caught in the wild by the nest, they possess a lot of hunting skill in their genes. Second option is to capture chicks from their nest mostly from the Tien Shan mountain range. This can be very dangerous, since “berkuts” build their nets in hard to reach areas. Many people were attacked and died, because adult eagles came back during the attempt to steal nestlings. Kidnapped eagles get used to people easier.
In the beginning of domestication, “Berkutchi” spends plenty of time with the eaglet, which are taught to fly fastened to a rope. Training process takes 3-4 years and it´s always done by just one person in order to develop bond between eagle and master. It is often a lifelong friendship, because golden eagles live approximately for 40 years. There are two conditions for training: strong relationship between “berkut” and “Berkutchi” and correct feeding. Eagles are fed 4-5 times per day and their optimal weight is 5-6 kilograms. In order to keep this weight, they are given about 800 grams of fresh beef, mutton, pigeon or fox meat. Eagles are often seen with a leather hood on their head. It´s called “tomago” and is used to calm down the eagle. “Berkutchi” wear leather gloves to protect themselves from the sharp talons of birds.
This fascinating nomadic tradition is often passed from father to son, but nowadays young people are losing their interest. Art of training golden eagles is unfortunately dying and has become a tourist attraction, but it was not so in the old days. Families depended on hunters who provided food and fur. There are still a few hunters trying to keep the tradition in Kyrgyzstan. They pass their hunting skills to disciples mostly in the Issyk-Kul region.