Mongolia is For the Birds

The land of “eternal blue sky” just wouldn’t be complete without its avian inhabitants. With about 60 families, making up 427 species, Mongolia offers a unique destination for bird lovers. Most well known are the Golden eagles, since they have traditionally been used in the ancient art of falconry by the Kazakh to hunt game for their mounted handlers.

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A young Golden eagle

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Me holding a Golden eagle. Heavy bird!

To satisfy your inner tourist, you can even hold a Golden eagle (or Cinereous vulture if you’re up for supporting a 30lb/14kg bird on your arm, as opposed to the 8lb/4kg eagle) near the giant Genghis (Chinggis) Khan statue outside Ulaanbaatar.

Vultures, such as the Bearded vulture pictured below on the left, and the Cinereous vulture pictured on the right, have a spiritual significance in many cultures throughout the Himalayas. Through a “sky burial” ceremony, a body is offered to the vultures to carry the soul of the deceased to the heavens, where it can move onto the next life. In Tibet, these scavengers are believed to be “Dakinis”, which are an equivalent to “angels”. It is considered to be good luck for your soul if vultures feed on your remains in Mongolia as well.

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Others of the 51 species of raptors in Mongolia also include, hawks, buzzards, falcons, kites, harriers, and owls. Since there are very few trees or places to perch out on the steppe, these birds can most often be found resting on the ground when not soaring high above looking for prey. So ironically, if you want to see some impressive birds, don’t look up. Look down!

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Rough-legged buzzard

Approximately 29 of Mongolia’s bird species are listed as Endangered. One of these is the Saker Falcon, which is actually the country’s national bird. I was fortunate to see a nest of Saker chicks in a reserve in Altanbulag, as well as an adult on the way to Otgontenger SPA!

Cranes symbolize longevity and happiness throughout Asia. Mongolia has 6 species of these large, graceful birds. One of the most common cranes you can see strutting along riverbanks in the summer is the Demoiselle crane. Standing at 35-38in/80-96cm, the Demoiselle crane is also known as the world’s smallest crane species.

There are a wide variety of songbirds to keep an eye out for too. Upon reaching the top of a mountain to search for snow leopard sign, I heard a lovely tune from this Blue-headed rock thrush.

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Blue-headed rock thrush

He allowed my teammate and I to stand there and simply enjoy his melody for quite some time before flying off to find a more rewarding audience. Another common, yet charming bird is the White wagtail. My team was camped outside a ranger’s cabin for a few days when this fellow perched up on the fence post to twitter away as a herd of feral horses grazed nearby. Between his song, the horses, and the rapids from the stream that flowed right next to our camp, it seemed like a very Zen sort of moment.

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White wagtail

In rural areas, the sound of loud clucking from Chukar partridges will echo throughout the mountains. As the sun descends, and you snuggle into your sleeping bag, your lullaby will be the never ceasing call of a cuckoo. Then again, your alarm will also be the never ceasing call of a cuckoo. Occasionally, you may hear the churring of a nightjar, hiding among the rocks, perfectly camouflaged. In more urban areas, a flock of Red-billed choughs will be sure to entertain you as they hover effortlessly above rooftops, riding up and down the gusts of wind like a carnival ride while calling almost gleefully to their comrades. So whether you want to witness the arrival of migratory birds, keep a tally of the extensive list of aquatic dwellers, or behold the magnificence of one of the many raptors, Mongolia has it all for both avid birders and casual observers alike.

Mongolian word for “bird”: shuvuu

List of Mongolia’s Birds

Mongolian Red List of Birds

Sky Burial Tradition

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