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Fabulous Falcons

The Air Force Academy’s Majestic Mascots

  Aurora, a rare white gyrfalcon, is a beautiful example of the world’s largest falcon species. At 23 years old, she is retired from flying and enjoys being a presentation bird, educating the public about her species and the Academy’s falconry program.

Aurora, a rare white gyrfalcon, is a beautiful example of the world’s largest falcon species. At 23 years old, she is retired from flying and enjoys being a presentation bird, educating the public about her species and the Academy’s falconry program.

They take your breath away—the magnificent birds of the Air Force Academy’s falconry program. Football season is about to begin, and seeing them soar and dive during halftime at Academy home games is a sight to behold.

The program has a storied history. In 1955, the first class to enter the Academy chose the falcon as the Cadet Wing mascot. They believed the regal bird best characterized the best attributes of the Air Force: speed, powerful and graceful flight, courage, keen eyesight, alertness, and noble tradition. The first falcon was a peregrine, named Mach 1, referring to the speed of sound. And although that is the official name of all the program’s birds, each one has its own personal name.

And how do these beautiful birds come to perform so perfectly? Credit goes to the amazing cadets who train and, yes, love them.

Becoming a Cadet Falconer

Members of the cadet-run program are responsible for the care, feeding, training, and general well-being of the Academy’s mascots. Every day. Winning a spot on this elite team is not easy. Of the 60 or so who apply each year, four cadets from the incoming freshman class are chosen to replace the graduating seniors. Tryouts are held from the end of January to early March, and they are rigorous.

“When selecting new members, the primary criteria is how well they work with the birds and with the team and their ability to communicate effectively with the public,” says team member Cadet 2nd Class Casey Miller.

The freshmen practice skills designed to assess those criteria, including how well they handle the falcons, give mock presentations, maintain the state-of-the-art mews in which the mascots are housed, and their general knowledge of the sport of falconry.

Everyone who makes it to the end of tryouts is required to give a final solo presentation to the entire team as well as take a falconry licensing exam and pass with a minimum 80%. The four who are chosen stay with the program until their graduation.

The best part? They each get their own bird.

“Currently, we have 10 falcons in residence. Six of those are unable to fly during demonstrations due to age, health, or past injuries,” Miller says. “The other four falcons are the ones we use for flying demonstrations.” Each of the freshmen chooses one of the four falcons, and they are together for their entire time on the team.

The six non-flyers are handled by all the team members and fill an important role as presentation birds. They appear at civic events locally and out of town, and people can touch them, have photo ops, and learn about the falconry program. Currently, they include two gyrfalcons, two peregrines, a prairie falcon, and an American kestrel (or sparrow hawk).

Although most distance travel is on military aircraft, cadets and their falcons sometimes have to fly commercially. The birds, of course, must stay with their cadets, so they simply ride in the cabin, tethered on the cadet’s gloved fist.

But bird security has become a priority. Last November, 23-year-old Aurora—an extremely rare white gyrfalcon and the Academy’s official mascot—was birdnapped by two West Point cadets as part of a prank before the annual game between the two rival academies. Fortunately, Aurora was recovered, has since recuperated from her injuries, and is back to behaving like her diva self. “Despite this, we are taking this incident very seriously, and great emphasis has been placed on ensuring that our birds are never put in this type of situation again,” Miller says. Still no word on the West Point perpetrators.

The Birds

Of the four hybrid flyers, two are gyrfalcon-sakers and two are gyrfalcon-peregrines. Gyrfalcons are the world’s largest falcon species, and peregrines are the fastest animal on Earth (yes, it’s true), reaching diving speeds of more than 250 miles an hour. Sakers are large falcons with good social temperaments. These powerful combinations make for the stunning aerial acrobatics at football games.

Every team member has a different responsibility. Seniors are the ones on the field who spin the lure, juniors handle communications to ensure everything runs smoothly, and sophomores release the birds from the top of the press box during football games.

How do they do it? Long hours of training by the cadets, requiring a lot of patience and hard work. “Every falcon responds a little differently to being trained and handled,” Miller says, “and the cadets working with them must adapt to their mannerisms in order to handle them effectively.”

First comes the “manning” process—by which they are acclimated to being around crowds and different situations and environments. Then they’re trained to fly to a lure, and when they catch it, they’re rewarded with a gourmet meal of quail.

The non-flying presentation birds go through a more thorough manning process so that they interact well with the public. After all, they’re representing the USAFA.

“We are the oldest club at the Academy, and we are very proud of our heritage,” Miller says.

It’s a proud tradition.

Fast Falcon Facts

The sport of falconry dates back 4,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia.

Falcons mate for life but spend most of their time as solitary hunters.

Peregrine falcons are the fastest animals in the world.

They can spot prey two miles away.

Falcons are federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

American kestrels are the smallest of the species, about the size of a blue jay or mourning dove.

You, too, can have a falcon experience

The Broadmoor Hotel offers a falconry program.

It includes beginner and intermediate lessons at which participants learn the history of the sport as well as how to fly and hold the birds. Classes are taught by master falconer Deanna Curtis. “I have had guests cry because it was a lifelong dream to be so close to a raptor,” she says.

For information, 719-471-6168 or www.broadmoor.com/activites/broadmoor-outfitters/falconry.