Seen from above, the prairies outside of Sublette, Kansas, are wave-tossed as the surface of a patchwork sea. Prey hide beneath the rolling grass: mice and voles, cottontails and pheasant, and the jackrabbits, lean and difficult to outpace. Meat packaged in a plethora of different sizes and shapes—assuming you can catch it.
Lauren McGough scans her surroundings with a focus similar to that of the raptor perched on her glove. Tall and broad shouldered, with an open face and a direct, unassuming air, McGough is a master falconer and one of the few people in America who hunts with a Golden Eagle. The eagle’s name is Miles, and if he could venture an opinion, he might tell you he’s human too: Poached for a pet as a chick, he imprinted on his kidnapper, leaving him with a profound case of species dysphoria that never quite faded. For the first 13 years of his life, he had precious little opportunity to act as an adult eagle should. After U.S. Fish and Wildlife seized him from the poacher, he passed from rehabber to rehabber, a neurotic, seven-pound bundle of amber feathers and talons, unable to hunt and prone to bullying people for scraps. He likely would have stayed that way if it weren’t for McGough.
McGough, 29, was recently named executive director of the Falconry Fund, a new nonprofit organization dedicated to cultural outreach and raptor conservation. She’s also a globetrotting anthrozoologist, interested in the ancient relationship between humanity and birds of prey. Falconry—the practice of training predatory birds to hunt in concert with humans—has existed for thousands of years. Lately the discipline has enjoyed a flirtation with mainstream American culture, with books like H is for Hawk and documentaries like The Eagle Huntress bringing the practice to new audiences. But there’s another side to falconry, seldom discussed: Much as targeted physical therapy helps professional athletes, training rescue birds can help rehabilitate injured hunters, while techniques developed for falconry are assisting in captive breeding of endangered raptors. These days, it's this helping aspect of falconry that McGough is most drawn to.
he first time McGough went hunting with a bird of prey, she was terrified of letting it fly. At 14 years old, she was working with her first raptor, a Red-Tailed Hawk trained by the president of the local falconry association. While licensed falconers in the United States are allowed to trap certain raptors from the wild, train them, and free them after a few years, the birds aren’t tame. “I was convinced that if I released it [from the glove] it would just fly off and never come back,” McGough says.
Once she worked up the nerve to release it, though, it did come back. As she finished up high school and the two-year process of gaining her own falconer’s license, McGough grew more confident in her abilities and began digging deeper into the folk culture and history of the discipline. While reading Steve Bodio’s A Rage For Falcons, she came across photos of Kazakh hunters in Mongolia; men on horseback, with Golden Eagles crouched like gargoyles on their fists. While corresponding with Bodio, McGough listened to his stories of hunting foxes with the nomads—and began to wonder if she could do the same.
Because it’s illegal to trap wild eagles in the United States due to the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, most American falconers concentrate on more obtainable (and manageable) birds. So in 2009, just out of college and still fascinated by the Kazakh, McGough got a Fulbright scholarship that sent her to the Altai Mountains of Mongolia, where she spent 10 months studying the traditional cultural practices and folkways of Kazakh eagle hunters. Under the tutelage of a local hunter and other falconers, she caught a young eagle, trained it with leash and glove, and after a few months was riding miles across frigid slopes in search of prey. By the time she released her eagle and left, Lauren was a fully fledged eagle hunter.
In the years that followed, McGough worked on her dissertation in Scotland and returned to Central Asia for fieldwork. While visiting the United States in 2014, she had the chance to work with a Golden Eagle named Pterodactyl. Like all eagles kept in American falconry, Pterodactyl was a rescue and unable to be released. Training her was more intensive than coaching a wild-caught bird, but McGough enjoyed it enough that she was happy to take on Miles in the spring of 2016. He soon proved to be a handful.
Birds taken from the wild already know how to hunt, McGough says; the trick is convincing them to hunt with you. As an imprint that had grown up in various rehab clinics, Miles came to her unable to fly and disinclined to learn, the kind of bird that can never be released into the wild. If she wanted him to be able to catch prey, McGough had to start from scratch. First, she fashioned a little jackrabbit lure out of cowhide, tied his meals to it, and encouraged him to hop from her glove and flutter after the food. As he began stretching his wings, she had him fly 10 feet, then 20, then had the lure attached to a radio-control car and made him chase it. He complained and tried to bully her for food, but she held fast—and he learned. “You have to kind of think your way around them,” she says. “You can only use positive reinforcement—they don’t understand punishment at all. So you have to be patient and try and figure out how to make them want to do something.”
The more routine you establish, McGough says, the better your communication with the bird, and the more enjoyable the experience. She’s flown Miles as often as possible over two seasons, and he’s improved by leaps and bounds—he’s now successfully killed 22 jackrabbits, once managing to bag three in one day. (McGough usually stores the kills and doles them out to the eagle later.) She’d like to take him up to 50 or more: Numbers are a gauge of a confident eagle and a healthy partnership.
But hunting is a difficult task even for an experienced eagle, much less one with little experience flying free. On the grasslands, where visibility is high and cover is rare, the contest between predator and prey becomes one of speed and endurance. A thousand tiny factors can tip the odds. The role of a falconer is to try and tip them in the eagle’s favor.
Out on the prairie, the air swirls with the quiet, constant pulse of the breeze. Meadowlarks sing on the fence posts, while Northern Harriers turn in lazy arcs over the wide dirt highways. Today, photographer Ilana Panich-Linsman and I are playing the role of “scareboys,” walking in a loose picket to flush out prey. Over the crunch of tumbleweed, McGough tells us how to read the land as an eagle might; how to judge if the grass is too high for jackrabbits, or too thick, or too sparse. The first jackrabbit we see emerges as if by magic from a tussock of grass and zips away. McGough’s fingers loosen on the tethers. Miles powers forward in a sweep of golden wings—and misses. The second and third flight are misses, too. The minutes melt together as we cross the prairie; now and then jackrabbits appear, dodge the eagle’s strikes, and dwindle into the fields, running long after pursuit has ceased. The most exciting attempt of the morning comes when a hare bounds away into a field of cut corn, legging through the short stalks with Miles in hot pursuit. But the corn stubble bothers him. He dips uncertainly, struggles to recover his speed, and visibly gives up. Dropping to the ground, he stands and waits for McGough to come and get him.
While Miles isn’t doing as well as he might, the techniques McGough is using with him may have wider conservation purposes. It's dangerous out there for raptors. In the United States, roadkill lures them down into the path of cars, while bullets, wind turbines, and transformers can kill or injure the birds. A 2016 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notes that 63 percent of adult Golden Eagle deaths are caused, directly or indirectly, by humans. While imprinted eagles are non-releasable by default, wild animals that turn up at raptor rescues can be difficult to rehabilitate even after their injuries are healed. A predatory lifestyle requires quite a bit of mental and physical focus; birds that practice regularly easily end up out of shape on the mend. “Flying is the best way to teach an eagle what it needs to know in order to be released,” McGough says. “In some cases, the traditional means of rehabbing eagles, which would be totally hands off—keeping it by itself in an aviary—doesn’t teach it what it needs to know to survive.”
The Falconry Fund is helping to underwrite an attempt to test this idea. The organization exists to help funnel money into efforts to preserve the cultural traditions of falconry in America, McGough says, and ideally that will include ideas useful for helping wild populations recover. Currently, the fund is shopping around a study proposal to outfit two groups of rescue eagles with satellite transmitters, to see how the survival rates of those rehabbed in the traditional fashion compare to those flown by falconers. Other projects are in the works as well, including an initiative to retrofit power poles in Montana—a common breeding place for eagles—so that they can’t electrocute birds of prey.
According to Matthew Mullenix, board president of the Falconry Fund, traditional falconry practices have been used in the past to help re-establish raptor populations through captive breeding. The use of “hacking towers”—remote nest boxes where captive bred birds can be reared without imprinting on humans—helped build up captive-bred populations of the critically endangered eastern Peregrine Falcon, to the point where it was no longer listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Wild peregrines can now be taken and flown by licensed falconers, something McGough would like to eventually see for American Golden Eagles, too.
"It might seem bad to someone to trap a raptor that doesn't know what's going on, but within a few short weeks, she’s your hunting partner,” McGough says. “You and whoever’s around you are experiencing nature in a new way, and have a deeper appreciation for it. And it's just a detour in that bird's life: this odd time it gets to spend with a human before it goes back out on its own."
On the hunt with McGough and Miles, it's clear that he’s got a ways to go. The clouds build on the horizon as we head to the other side of the field, the light fading into the evening hush. The meadowlarks are quiet now; sparrows rise and fall from the grass. Miles pursues prey without much success, and both he and McGough seem to be getting discouraged. Perhaps the jackrabbits sense this; after each miss, new ones appear and lope insolently into the gloom.
Then a jackrabbit materializes out of thin air and flees, eyes wide in panic—and makes the deadly mistake of running downwind. In an instant, Miles is off the glove and turning in a wide arc to catch the wind. He shoots after the jackrabbit with the deceptive laziness of an oncoming train. Every dodge is countered, every turn anticipated. Our breaths catch. “Go, go, go,” McGough shouts. “Come on!”
The eagle tilts, slamming toward the ground. Taloned feet snap out—and close on empty sod. At the last possible second the jackrabbit has leapt straight up, turning in a somersault of white fur over the eagle’s head. Then it hits the ground and vanishes.
McGough collapses flat on her back in the grass, her hands on her head. “Oh my god,” she says, staring up. “Oh my god, that was so close. Did you—wow.”
Miles pants out in the field, staring forlornly after the jackrabbit. McGough pushes herself up. Despite the miss, she’s grinning. “You never know what's gonna happen,” she says. “It’s great. I think that might be my favorite flight of the season.” Then she’s up and striding off to collect her bird, ready again to make him fly.