Lauren McGough has always been interested in birds. As a child growing up in Oklahoma, she spent much of her time bird-watching and reading books about people who hunted with birds during the Middle Ages.
“A lot of falconers will tell you that we were born falconers but just didn’t know it,” McGough told TIME for Kids. “Something had to spark that realization that this is what I’m supposed to be doing with my life.”
For McGough, that spark came when she was 14 years old. A library book changed the course of her life. A Rage for Falcons, by Stephen J. Bodio, is about modern falconry in America. “It seemed like such a crazy idea to have a bird of prey be a willing hunting companion to humans,” McGough says. After seven years of training, she became a master falconer.
Falconry has existed for thousands of years. It is practiced around the world. One of its oldest forms involves hunting with golden eagles. It started in the grasslands of Mongolia, in Central Asia. After college, McGough went there to learn more about the ancient custom.
Traditionally, only men have been eagle hunters. But when McGough showed up to live and study with eagle hunters in Mongolia, they welcomed her. “I think they were happy that someone was interested in learning,” she says.
Training as an eagle hunter requires months of building trust with a bird. “These animals are very independent and capable of living by themselves,” McGough says. “My goal is to convince the eagle that life is better with my help.”
McGough worked with a 2-year-old golden eagle named Alema. She hand-fed Alema and rewarded her for catching prey. Once McGough completed her training, she released Alema back into the wild.
McGough now rehabilitates injured eagles in the United States and South Africa. She is excited for the future of falconry, as more people learn about the practice. “Once you know about falconry, you start noticing all kinds of birds around you,” she says. “It gives you a window into the natural world.”