Lauren McGough is an Anthropology graduate student and aspiring writer who has been a falconer for ten years. She began her falconry career in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma but has chased falconry experiences around the world. She has an unabashed love for golden eagles and says she has learned a great deal from Steve Bodio, Frances Hamerstrom, Neil Hunter and Alema, her favorite falconry bird. She spends her molt snacking on pineapple and daydreaming about her next falconry adventure while avoiding taking out the trash.
1) First question, partial disclosure on our relationship. I met you through Steve Bodio who has always talked about you with affection and awe. However, I’ve met you in person (unlike many of my online falconer friends) and absolutely share his sentiment. So tell me, you’ve been running off to foreign countries to chase after falconry since you were a teenager. What got you started and seriously, weren’t you scared out of your mind??
Growing up in a frequently-moving Air Force family gave me wanderlust. I’ve long enjoyed travel, but until I realized the global reach of falconry, it was pretty much aimless. When I learned that Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa all had their own obsessive falconers and unique history behind the sport, it was an epiphany. Here was something to explore and experience! I was certainly scared, going to a new place is always a gamble, but my family has been incredibly supportive. When my Dad went with me to visit berkutchi in Monoglia when I was 17 – and not only was it fun, but the locals allowed me to fly the eagles – it gave me the confidence to go anywhere. What is interesting to me is the number of times I’ve found myself alone in a strange place for falconry, and almost invariably, there are people you make a connection with. One place I’d really love to go for falconry is Turkmenistan. Caravans of falconers on camelback, with tazis at heel, and passage sakers on the fist, searching for hares in the deep desert is the sort of stuff my dreams are made of. I still find it scary (especially the prospect of flying on Turkmen Air) but the promise of adventure is too captivating.
2) I think I know you well enough to guess that eagles are the bird that tug at your heart the most. What is it about an Aquila that makes you fall in love?
This is a surprisingly difficult one to explain. It is not the size of the bird, and it is not the bond. It is what they are capable of. This big lump of a raptor that should be slow and cumbersome is swift, nimble, agile, aerial, maneuverable and continually leaves me open-mouthed in the field thinking, “I can’t believe she just caught that!” They are an incredible combination of strength and speed which can be flown waiting-on in the worst conditions or off-the-fist at distant slips. They are highly individualistic in their flight styles, and different eagles can work out completely different ways of getting from your glove to that hare or fox. I’ve always flown eagles without bells, and one thing that makes the hairs go up on the back of my neck is the sound of an eagle’s wing beats as it rushes past you, or the scream through its feathers as it stoops overhead, on a quiet mountain or moor.
They can be a pain in the butt to carry, and they can have odd personality quirks that are absent from other raptors, but a fit, confident golden eagle makes for some of the finest falconry on the planet.
3) You know more about cross-culture falconry than just about anyone I know. What is it that we all have in common, no matter the culture or gender?
It is a love and appreciation for the bird, the flight, and the hunt. In falconry, as in my things, you either “get it” or you don’t. And when a bunch of people are together that “get it” you are suddenly at home. What has struck me about falconry is the conversations one can have without even speaking the same language. After a good flight, when everyone is recreating the events with wild gesticulations and excited smiles, one hardly needs a translator. What is funny to me, is that I remember these encounters as if they were actual conversations.
Eagle falconry is a particularly testosterone filled niche of the sport, and Kazakh culture is unabashedly male-dominant, and still, that all melts away when we’ve got keen eagles and quarry to fly. Everyone wants to see good flights, and when we all work together to help make that happen and camaraderie of the sport really takes over. Once you’ve shown your, say, vulnerability when you fear you’ve lost your bird, or your elation when your bird has made a great catch, a real connection is forged. I think of a “hawking buddy” as almost as sacred thing. I think all of that goes a long way in showing the universality of falconry. Although, I once had a drunk Kazakh say to me, “Lauren, you are a good eagle falconer. But if you were a man, you’d be amazing!”
4) A Fulbright. To be a berkutchi. (Mongolian eagle falconer). Seriously. Please tell me how you pulled that off and why other girls should grow up to do something similar.
It may sound cliche, but I love the adage “follow your bliss”. If you seek out your passion, and what inspires your imagination, amazing things can happen. I remember spending hours watching wild Golden Eagles in New Mexico before I even knew what falconry was, and spending hours daydreaming about Kazakh eagle falconry before I even knew it was possible for Westerners to go there. Since becoming a falconer, I’ve always tried to be attuned to opportunities. I found out about the Fulbright program by attending a lecture at my university, and I remember thinking, “Hey wait a minute…I could use this for falconry!”
Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something. And don’t let that nervousness in the back of your mind stop you – that’s just adventure beckoning. Girls can do whatever they damn well please in this world. A dream is something that should be pursued, no matter who you are and what it is.
5) Surely you expected this… tell me about your most unexpected moment in Mongolia. And what the heck was that disgusting stuff you drank??
During my time in Mongolia, we had a particularly grueling day across several miles of mountainous terrain. Daylight was fading, and I was discouraged that, after so much effort, my eagle had not taken a fox that day. Just as the sun slid behind the snow-covered hills, Kukan, the eagle hunter whom I apprenticed under, managed to flush a fox. My eagle bolted from the glove and, after a long flight and subsequent stoop, slammed into a hillside and took the fox. I was suddenly light as air, shouting and whooping, and pushing my horse to a gallop. After I’d traded her, and was attaching the fox to the saddle for the ride home, he exclaimed to nobody in particular, “Why didn’t I ever take MY daughters hunting?” I was floored, and then I couldn’t smile big enough.
As far as the disgusting stuff I drank, that could be a lot of things! Yak milk right outta the yak — good, but tasted like milk with a stick of butter melted in it. “Kumiss”, fermented mare’s milk — sour and tangy, with an ability to get you tipsy before you realize it. Or “sorpa” — the greasy water left over from boiling meat that is dolled out as a sort of desert.
I will say though, there are worse ways to spend a day then laying out in the hot summer sun with molting eagles, reliving the season’s best flights with friends, buzzed on mare’s milk.
Thanks, Lauren. I was jealous before and now I’m absolutely green with envy. Hurry up and finish that memoir that goes with your Fullbright work so we can all read it!!