Jeff Cooper's Commentaries

Previously Gunsite Gossip

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 performance.

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