The Owl That Went Blind
It was entirely possible that the hunting commissioner had not left his desk since 1989. On the wall there was still a big map of the Soviet Union, stained yellow by the years. Little icons of birds and bears were pasted across the country, waiting to be hunted down. On top of a cupboard there was a fish, mounted on a stand, with googly-eyes where its real ones should be. I felt it staring at me as the bureaucrat asked me about what brought me here, to the Osh-Batken Union of Hunters and Fishermen. I told him I was interested in finding traditional hunters in the south of Kyrgyzstan and organizing a union of falconers. He nodded and smiled. “I agree with everything you’re saying,” he told me, “but it all comes down to funding.” Pizdyets, I thought, every conversation here comes down to funding. In a deflated economy like Kyrgyzstan’s I can expect some desperation, but I was getting tired of getting hit up. I gave him my ‘starving student’ routine. “Look man, I’m just a researcher on a budget. I ain’t a millionaire.” He took pity and gave me a list of contacts free of charge.
Boronbai was on the list, and he met us outside a teahouse in Nookat, wearing a fur hat and gold teeth. He was the local hunting inspector, in charge of enforcing regulations in this little slice of the south. What I suspected that really meant was that he was the local collector of shtrafs, or bribes, and I feared that the hunters we were looking for would flee in his wake. But as we sat outside the teahouse on bed-like platforms made for tea-sipping, he seemed to me to be kind and helpful. He made calls on his battered cell phone to falconer acquaintances while Abay and I admired the loitering crowd of elderly men, pensioners without much to do but loiter in crowds and sip tea on platforms. They stared at us right back, and when we told them we were from Bishkek they shook their heads like we were from another planet.
Our friendly inspector had found us our man, a man a couple towns over who kept a falcon. Boronbai taxied us over to the guy’s house and we walked into his yard unbidden, but instead of being shooed away we were greeted with “peace be upon you”s and bowls of drinkable yogurt. The man introduced himself as Imar Adashov. His 85-year-old father Adash gave him his name but also his knowledge – he was an eagle hunter himself, and so was his father before him. Now he was too old to hunt or even give an interview, but his son answered our questions with joyful expertise. Imar showed us his falcon in the corner of the yard and admitted that it needed a makeover – last summer he hadn’t fed it well enough and it didn’t moult, so its feathers looked soiled and worn. When I asked him how he caught it, he said he snared it with a net, and set about giving me an animated demonstration in the particulars of net construction.
So we put two nets like this, he showed me, unfurling them into a V. One side is smaller and is called the kichi jak – “small mouth” in Uzbek. The other side is bigger and is called the ketta jak – “big mouth.” They’re supported by sticks at the sides and the middle and by a rope at the top. The rope is threaded through a stake in the ground called a chetmek. In the jaws of the V we put our bait – a kekelek, or partridge. We tie a rope around the kekelek and retreat with the other end to a kind of hunting blind, which we call a kappa (also Uzbek). In ambush, we are hidden from the raptors, but pull on the rope so that the partridge will flail around and catch the bird’s attention. When the raptor swoops down for what it thinks is an easy lunch, it snags itself in the ketta jak, and if it manages to avoid that, it will fly into the kichi jak as it tries to escape. The seal the deal, the rope that was supporting the whole thing at the top will slide out of the chetmek and the whole net will collapse on itself. You got yourself a bird.
I’ve been working with hunters in Kyrgyzstan for seven months, but all this was new to me. From what I’d seen in the north, hunters usually put up four nets in a square and leave it on a hillside, coming back every day to check for prey. Sure enough, Imar knew that technique too, but he had a different name for it – he called it kol bo, or hand rope, but he couldn’t explain why. This small mouth-big mouth technique seemed to be an entirely southern artefact, though, and was a fascinating find. Moreover, the terminology was different – in the Uzbek-saturated dialect of the south, the Uzbek language had also penetrated Kyrgyz hunting terminology. Hunters in northern Kyrgyzstan has dismissed the tradition in the south as weak and inferior, but Imar was here to show me that they also had novel knowledge to offer.
“There’s another technique” Imar said “that’s very rare, but I will you about it. It’s called the pom tor. ” Pom was Uzbek for “owl” – this unusual technique was called the “owl net.” The idea was to use an owl as bait. The nocturnal owl, Imar explained, is every diurnal raptor’s worst enemy. Most raptors can’t see well at night, so the owl will torment them and capture their children. The raptors are left thirsting for revenge. So should a hunter come across an owl (this is what makes it rare: owls themselves are hard to catch), he turns it into a sacrificial offering for the vengeful raptors of the daytime. Owls have fantastic hearing, so he stuffs the bird’s ears with cotton. To deprive them of their sight, he sews the owl’s eyelids shut. “Jesus,” I said, “Poor bird.” Imar continued without skipping a beat. With the owl incapacitated, it can’t see the other raptors coming to scare them off. The hunter perches it atop a pile of stones. “Why?” I asked, stopping him again. “It’s a kind of theater,” he answered. Owls don’t often sit on stones when hunting, they usually sit higher, so the raptors will think that it’s just resting. Right. Lastly, he went on, the hunter ties strings to it’s wings and tailfeathers, and pulls them from inside his shelter, his kappa. The slight motion of the moving feathers will catch the attention of the targeted raptor, and the owl is soon doomed. Here is Abay’s translation.
“When the raptor sees the owl, they don’t eat the owl. They are just trying to kill it because the owl is its worst enemy. So they punch it with their feet.”
The nets fall in, the raptor is snagged, and the owl is dead. Yet the owl won’t go to waste. The hunter will probably cut off its feet and use it for a talisman. They’ll also pull out its feathers – these are also considered good luck, because it is said that Quranic scriptures can be seen in their intricate coloring. Now that, I said, would be a happy hunter. Holy feathers and a big new bird.
We thanked Imar for his fascinating lesson and told him more about our purposes there. We weren’t just there to learn how to debilitate an owl – we wanted to organize a union of hunters like him, so that he could share his knowledge with interested people all over the south. He was keen on the idea, and gave us a list of ten other falconry enthusiasts in his town to put in our directory. In gratitude, we told him that he could be the local leader for our new traditional hunting collective. He put his hand over his heart and looked as happy as a hunter with a newly-snagged falcon. “Thank you!” he said. “But now I have to get myself an eagle. Do you know where I can find an owl?”