Sky Lady

Over the past century humanity has learned to dominate the sky, but
wonderful as our machines are, they do not equal in glamour that aspect
of God's handiwork we call the falcon. We all know there is such a bird
as a falcon and such an activity as falconry, but most of us are only
vaguely aware of the details of the subject. I recently had the great
good fortune to attend a demonstration at Hohenwerfen in Austria, some
40 minutes south of Salzburg, and it left me astounded.

The falcon is nature's work of art, combining beauty of line with
spectacular efficiency in wonderful fashion. The castle at Hohenwerfen
now operates as a sort of training ground and /Falkenhorst/ where
visitors can observe the birds and their activities in immediate contact.

The Peregrine falcon (/Falco peregrinus/) was previously known in this
country as the "duck hawk," though I do not believe it was ever
particularly partial to ducks as prey. All falcons are programmed
air-to-air and hunt from above with unbelievable expertise. When the
man-managed falcon is launched for exercise, she immediately flashes
upward until practically out of sight, and then with or without a
specific target, she "/stoops/." I say "she" because all falcons are
female. The male of the species is properly called /tiercel/, and is
about a third smaller than his mate.

The stoop of the falcon is marvelous to behold. This is the only bird
which can fly straight down under full power. She does not drop like a
pelican, but slashes her way down the sky at speeds estimated at 180
miles an hour. This attack is so swift and so deadly that its victim
literally does not know what hit it. Normally she breaks the neck just
behind the head, using both talons at once, and then releases to indulge
in a flashing circle and snatch the bird before it hits the ground.

There were no target birds in the demonstration we attended, but that
did not stop the sky lady from showing off. Pride is not unknown in
birds, but the pride of the peacock lies in his appearance rather than
his performance. The falcon, on the other hand, gloats over her command
of the air and seems to delight in showing it to people - even people.
In the stunt that came closest to me I could barely make out the
beautiful, long pointed wings nearly out of sight even with binoculars.
Then without signal she nosed down, tucked those wings in, and stroked
powerfully only half extended. One instant she was a thousand feet aloft
and in the next she pulled up into a dead stall, head up, a mere pistol
shot away. For an instant she hung there vertically and glanced around
as if to see if she had been observed and admired. The glow in her
large, bright eyes seemed to ask, "Did you see that? I can do that. I
bet you can't do that."

The birds do not attack for food at Hohenwerfen. They are, however, fed
with fragments of wild birds when they are called in at the end of the

There are a number of small birds in evidence around the castle, but the
/prima donnas/ took no notice of them. The ladies have become accustomed
to a routine which seems to meet their needs, at least partially. It is
said that the falcon is both emotional and sensitive, and enjoys being
stroked with a feather and flattered in low, caressing tones. Like most
ladies, she enjoys being told how wonderful she is, how beautiful she
appears and how magnificently she flies.

I had never understood the appeal of falconry, for demonstrations such
as this are not common today. But now I do, since I have seen this
natural wonder first-hand. Falcons now are not common. The numbers have
been reduced seriously by the use of pesticides, which when ingested
from prey birds causes infertility in the falcon. They do, however, find
refuge in some big cities where they prey upon pigeons which infest the
parks. The falcon demonstration is something not to be missed if it
happens to come within your reach. For those who can appreciate it, it
constitutes almost a religious experience, as evidence of the ineffable
artistry of His guiding hand.

"Survival of the fittest" could never have achieved this result.

*Jeff Cooper*, /March 2004


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