Newest falcon stretches her wings

  • Published
  • By Dave Edwards
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
Visitors to the Air Force Academy wouldn't be surprised to hear someone say, "Look. It's a plane." At the Community Center library July 22, though, they were saying -- maybe not in so many words -- "Look. It's a bird."

It was two birds, in fact. A crowd of perhaps 70 came to watch a trio from the cadet falconers and two of their avian stars, Cody and "the baby."

Cody is an 18-year-old prairie falcon and the oldest of the group's birds. The baby, alternately referred to as "Alice," "Athena" or "Valkyrie," is an 8-week-old gyrfalcon. Both enthralled the group of inquisitive youngsters, parents and grandparents, and neither of them was the least bit camera-shy.

The baby wowed the onlookers with her wingspan. At the end of the presentation, eager children asked the handlers if they could pet the two birds of prey that had captured their attention from Minute 1.

"If you put Cody on one end of the football field and a newspaper on the other end, Cody could read it -- if he knew how to read," said Cadet 2nd Class Yagie Janisch of Cadet Squadron 32, explaining falcons' keen eyesight, which is six or seven times more acute than a human's.

Joining Cadet Janisch were Cadet 1st Class Gabe DeJong from CS 40 and Cadet 2nd Class Jenny Flynn from CS 31. Cadet Flynn had the baby falcon perched on her gloved hand.

"They're really well-natured birds, but sometimes they can get ornery," Cadet DeJong said.

The Academy's falcons tend to live about twice as long as their counterparts in the wild because they are treated with great care and attention to detail. Cadet Janisch was ready with the answer when a boy in the crowd asked about the falcons' diet.

"They eat (flash-frozen) Japanese quail, which in some parts of the world is considered a delicacy," she said. "They're very spoiled. (In the wild), they're air-to-air-combat predators, so they don't hunt anything on the ground."

The menu at the Academy also helps explain why the birds don't fly off and disappear. They rely on the falconers for food, and they are not trained to hunt. Hunger brings them back home. But falconers do attach a telemetry device to the birds just in case they wander off, which happens occasionally, Cadet DeJong said.

Falconry is one of the numerous clubs available to cadets. Being selected is a prestigious honor, because each new school year typically brings 30 to 40 applicants, and only four cadets from each class are chosen. The cadet falconers number 13 in all.

When members of the Class of 1959 -- the Academy's first -- chose the falcon as mascot of the cadet wing, they left the question of species open-ended, so the Academy's mascot can be a falcon of any species.

Aurora, a member of the largest falcon species, gyrfalcons, is the mother of the baby falcon. Once the new school year starts, cadets will choose a permanent name for the new bird.

In North America, there are five native falcon species, including the reigning speed demon of the animal kingdom, the peregrine falcon. Others include the prairie falcon, the American merlin and the American kestrel. The cadet falconers exhibit four of the five native species.

Thanks to an agreement between the Academy and United Airlines, the birds are allowed to travel in the passenger cabin with their handlers. In a 2008 interview with 5280 magazine, then-Cadet 2nd Class Jacque Harrier said, "It's pretty interesting when you sit next to a stranger and you've got a bird on your arm. It's a good way to get people to know about the Academy. It's a pretty easy conversation-starter."

It was clear from the Community Center exhibition just how much the falconers enjoy their special work. Among NCAA schools, the falconry program is unique, and it has won a litany of accolades.

Though the falconry program is not designed to rehabilitate, the cadets are trying to do just that for Buzz, a 1-year-old kestrel falcon in the cadets' care.

"Although they're amazing birds, we have to take good care of them," Cadet Janisch said. "Every falconer who has ever visited our facility said that ours is the best they've ever seen."