The Falcon - Flying High
Sports audiences across the country have been intrigued and delighted by the aerobatics of the falcon, the flying mascot of the U.S. Air Force Academy and the only performing mascot in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The falcon can attain velocities exceeding 200 miles per hour in stoops or dives, turn sharply and streak only inches above the ground, making it the fastest and one of the most maneuverable of all birds. Trained and handled by cadet falconers, the birds soar and dive, sometimes zooming low over the heads of spectators. While their public flying performances are primarily limited to outdoor venues, most often at football games and cadet wing parades, the falcons appear at many other athletic contests in which cadet teams play.
Members of the Class of l959, the first to enter the Academy, chose the falcon as the mascot of the cadet wing Sept. 25, l955, feeling that it best characterized the combat role of the U.S. Air Force. They did not specify any particular species, thus, any falcon can serve as mascot. Some of the characteristics which led to its selection were speed, powerful and graceful flight, courage, keen eyesight, alertness, regal carriage, and noble tradition. The falcon exemplified the qualities sought in Air Force Academy cadets; courage, intelligence, love of the wild sky, ferocity in attack, but gentle in repose - and discipline.
Experts once said falcons could not be trained to perform before huge crowds, that the birds would panic and flee. Since 1956, however, cadets have flown the birds at sporting events before thousands of cheering spectators. Six weeks or more and an average of 300 man-hours per bird are required to properly train a young falcon. When a bird is in top condition, it is able to fly for more than an hour and make repeated stoops at the baited lure swung by the cadet falconer. Although they can be trained to perform, falcons are never totally domesticated and remain wild creatures with strong, independent spirits.
Although they are members of the hawk family, falcons differ in that they have long pointed wings and dark eyes. There are five types of falcons native to North America, ranging in height from two feet to as small as five inches. They are the Arctic gyrfalcon, the largest; peregrine falcon, sometimes called the duck hawk; prairie falcon; American merlin, or pigeon hawk; and the American kestrel, also known as a windhover or a sparrow hawk. On Oct. 5, 1955, a splendid peregrine was the first falcon presented to the cadet wing. It was named "Mach 1," referring to the speed of sound. While "Mach 1" is still the official mascot name, each bird receives an individual name from the falconers. Twelve to 15 falcons are kept in the mews (enclosures for trained hawks) north of the cadet area. The majority are prairie falcons native to Colorado. The Academy has been fortunate to have had white phase gyrfalcons represent the cadet wing. Previous gyrfalcon mascots were Atholl, Baffin and Glacier. Glacier served as the Academy's mascot from July 1980 through August 1995. Glacier, a male, came to the Academy from the Seward Peninsula of Alaska July 3, 1980. Glacier died from cancer on 9 August 1995 and is mounted for permanent display in the Cadet Field House. On June 8, 1996, the Association of Graduates purchased a female white phase gyrfalcon from Mr. Dan Konkle in Sheradin, Wyoming, and donated her to the Academy. The cadet wing named this new mascot Aurora - from Roman Mythology, the goddess of the dawn. She is now the official mascot for the United States Air Force Academy and will become the center of attention for the Academy's Falcon Mascot Program. At a mere 40 days old, this majestic creature weighed four pounds. Glacier, our previous gyrfalcon Mascot, only weighed 2 pounds.
Although any falcon can serve as an Academy Mascot, the white phase Arctic gyrfalcon has always been the official mascot of the Air Force Academy. Gyrs constitute only about 5 percent of the total number of falcons found in the United States. Of that 5 percent, only about 3-4 percent are true white phase gyrfalcons.
Falconry is one of the extracurricular activities offered to cadets. The Academy's public health officer, a public health veterinarian, is the officer-in-charge. There are usually 12 falconers, with four chosen from each new class at the end of the year to replace graduating seniors. The new falconers begin training in January under the leadership of experienced upperclassmen and the officer-in-charge. Without proper instruction, novices can physically harm the birds or adversely affect their training. Falconers' duties include daily checks of each bird's health and condition, training sessions during which the birds are fed a measured ration of meat, frequent cleaning of the mews and routine maintenance of equipment.
The prairie falcon is the bird primarily used by cadet falconers in flying demonstrations, however peregrine falcons are also flown. The birds are flown throughout the year, weather permitting, to keep them in top condition.
During performances, the birds fly to a lure, a rectangular-shaped leather pouch to which meat is attached. The falconer whirls the lure in a circle on a 30-foot cord; the bird quickly learns to strike it in mid-air, carry it to the ground and dine on the food. As the bird stoops toward the lure in free flight, the lure is jerked aside, causing the falcon to fly up, circle and make another pass. This procedure is repeated several times before the bird is allowed to strike the lure in mid-air. A small battery-powered transmitter is attached to one leg and a bell to the other leg so that, should the bird not come to the lure as it had been trained, the cadet falconers will be able to follow and safely recover the falcon.
TRAINING THE FALCONS
Under special permits issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the Academy is permitted to propagate captive prairie falcons. Since 1974, most birds used for public exhibition have been hatched in the Academy breeding project. Due to the success of the project, birds excess to Academy needs have been transferred to agencies for use in educational programs dealing with raptors (birds of prey) or have been trained to hunt and then released into the wild. Annual reports on all activities of the Academy falcon program are submitted to state and federal wildlife conservation agencies.
Young birds hatched in May or June grow rapidly and by the end of July are fully feathered and ready for training. The first step is to acquaint them with the jess, a short leather strap fastened to each of the bird's legs. The next stage is called manning, a procedure to let the falcons become accustomed to the presence, sounds and smell of people. Each falcon has a six-foot leash coupled to the jesses, and is carried on a falconer's gloved fist. In this manner, the bird gradually loses the fear of moving among crowds of people. A leather hood is used when necessary; when placed over the bird's head, the falcon will remain calm.
Next, a long stout string called a creance is used to secure the bird. One end of the creance is fastened to the base of a portable outdoor perch and the other end is fastened to the jesses, thus giving the bird a restricted flight range. The falcon is taught to hop, then flutter, and finally fly the length of the creance to the falconer for food. When the falcon flies unhesitatingly to the lure every time, the creance is removed and the bird is permitted to fly free.
Speed: can attain velocities exceeding 200 miles per hour in stoops or dives on their prey. Powerful and graceful flight, with strong, deep wing beats; they maneuver with ease, grace and evident enjoyment.
Courage: fearless and aggressive, falcons fiercely defend their nest and young against intruders. They have been known to unhesitatingly attack and kill prey more than twice their size.
Keen eyesight: about eight times sharper than man.
Alertness, regal carriage and noble tradition.