To Save a Falcon | Science | Smithsonian
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To Save a Falcon

An American biologist treks the steppes and the Gobi to rescue a Mongolian raptor that's in deep trouble

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Whether building aeries for raptors or scrabbling up perilous rock ledges in Mongolia, biologist and bird behaviorist David Ellis has a mission: to aid the saker falcon. Long a favorite of Middle Eastern falconers for its swift tactical flying, the saker faces a perilous future. Despite Mongolia's legal trade, high prices (up to $200,000 per bird) and greed have taken their toll on sakers in the wild.

As much a part of Mongolia's culture as of its natural history, sakers were revered by Genghis Khan for their hunting prowess. Though most Mongolians today no longer hunt with birds of prey, respect for the birds remains deep: wrestlers at Naadam, Mongolia's national games, warm up with flapping movements that imitate hawks and falcons.

Writer Adele Conover journeyed 3,700 miles through the steppes, deserts and mountains of Mongolia with Ellis' team, as they censused saker populations. Struggling against persistent winds, dangerously flooded rivers and attacks by raptors, the team investigated almost 200 aeries in search of sakers. Along the way, Mongolia's wild beauty shone through: grassy plains dotted with yurts (traditional homes of Mongolian nomads) and horses, camels and yaks. Although saker numbers remain dangerously low, the aeries that Ellis built showed the team a growing number of chicks — and some hope for a better future.

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