Spreading eagle wings

African bird of prey trained under Canadian County skies

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Lauren McGough trains an African black eagle named Mokala to land on her gloved hand under Canadian County skies Saturday, May 30. (Photo by Robert Medley)

By Robert Medley
Managing Editor

Under blue, central Canadian County skies east of U.S. 81 Saturday, a turkey vulture spread its wings above the vehicle where Lauren McGough parked.

In the back of McGough’s vehicle , another bird of prey, one not native to Oklahoma skies, waited her turn to fly. An African black eagle named Mokala lowered her hooded head as McGough opened the back hatch. Mokala is part of a plan to breed more black eagles.

Lauren McGough and Mokala are training in the sport of falconry on Canadian County land Saturday, May 30 with rabbit meat as a lure. (Photo by Robert Medley)

Learning to hunt her own prey will make her healthy enough to breed, McGough explained.

As the native, wild turkey vulture drifted away and out of site, Mokala open her wings to try the skies too. Mokala is also a wild animal. Other black eagles are doing well in some parts of Africa but in certain parts their numbers are threatened, McGough said.

Finding a place to train an eagle in Canadian County is not always easy. And McGough had been looking west to the more open spaces of Canadian County when she decided to make an unusual request on a social media group.

Did anyone have a place to train her eagle?

Lauren McGough has found a place to train a black eagle, Mokala, to pose on her glove Saturday in Canadian County. (Photo by Robert Medley)

David Griesel, who has land about 8 miles south of Okarche near Britton and Shepard roads, frequently allows animals that have been injured and rehabilitated by WildCare of Noble to be released on his land. Griesel and two other area landowners offered McGough and Mokala a place to work and train.

With the leather glove on her hand, and Mokala teethered by a cord attached around her ankles, McGough placed a slice of rabbit meat on her glove and left Mokala about 50 feet from her. The idea was for Mokala to fly to the glove to land. Her wings spread wide when she did decide to sail toward the glove. The talons spread open as the eagle landed.

Mokala, a Verreaux’s eagle, or black eagle, is the African relative of the North American golden eagle. Mokala is part of a breeding project to increase their populations.

McGough is one of the few people in the United States who trains eagles to hunt in the sport of falconry. Mokala was captured in Africa but has had trouble breeding. Learning to hunt again is expected to help.

“She hasn’t been interested in the males she has been paired with. And sometimes if you hunt with a bird of prey, you let them express all their instincts and chase rabbits and catch their own dinner, that puts their head on straight and puts them in the frame of mind to breed,” McGough said. “So, I’m flying her for a year or maybe two years and she will go back into the breeding project.”

“We’re just in the very beginning stages of training. So today we are working on recall. So, I will fly her to my glove and then I’ll fly her to a lure, or a fake rabbit. First steps. If you come out in the fall she will really be flying. She will be totally different,” McGough said.

McGough’s father , retired Air Force Lt. Col. Donald McGough, worked at Tinker Air Force Base. When Lauren McGough was 14 years-old, she captured a red-tail hawk and trained it to hunt cottontail rabbits.

Her mentor was Rob Rainey of Edmond. She got hooked on falconry. She said it takes about a month for a wild bird of prey to partner with a human.

Lauren McGough, 33, earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Oklahoma. She has a doctorate in anthropology from University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

“The beauty of taming down a wild animal is that they will revert back to their wild state as soon as you discontinue that contact. So, after a few years, I released her back to the wild and she continued on with her wild life,” McGough said.

It is not known how old Mokala is, McGough said, but eagles can live up to 30 years in the wild and 40 years in captivity.

Eagles are molting in the summer months, but in the fall, eagles begin to fly further distances to hunt. Colder weather motivates them to hunt.

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“She is going to take a while to train. So, I’m using this time to put the basics in and then we will really start flying in the fall,” McGough said.

McGough also trains a golden eagle. She frequently drives further west and into the Panhandle and western Oklahoma to hunt jack rabbits.

Griesel said jack rabbits are not as populous in Canadian county these days. He said he has had small animals released on his property but never had any one out with an eagle.

“It’s very different I like I a lot. I’ve always been a big fan of falconry,” Griesel said.