Aurora, a 22-year-old gyrfalcon that serves as one of the Air Force Academy’s mascots, is improving from serious injuries it suffered during a prank by Army cadets for which the U.S. Military Academy has apologized.
The injuries, which the Colorado Springs Gazette reports were to both of the bird’s wings, were suffered before the service academies' annual rivalry game Saturday in West Point, N.Y., and occurred when it was taken from an Army colonel’s home, an unnamed Air Force representative told the Gazette. The bird was being sent back to Colorado for evaluation and treatment by specialists. As of Sunday evening, Aurora had improved and “was able to fly around in her pen,” Air Force Academy spokeswoman Lt. Col. Tracy A. Bunko told the Associated Press. Aurora, who Bunko said is considered “part of our academy family,” is being treated with antibiotics and being able to fly is “an extremely good sign” that left officials “optimistic” for a recovery.
The U.S. Military Academy apologized and promised an investigation.
“The U.S. Military Academy sincerely apologizes for an incident involving U.S.M.A. cadets and the Air Force Academy Falcons,” West Point said in a statement on its website. “One of the birds was injured and the matter is currently under investigation. We are taking this situation very seriously.”
Sam Dollar, the Air Force’s falconry team adviser, told The New York Times that two West Point cadets took Aurora, the team’s official mascot, and Oblio, a younger Peregrine falcon, threw sweaters over them and put them into dog crates. They surrendered the birds Saturday morning and Aurora’s wings were bloodied, possibly because the bird thrashed inside the crate.
Aurora is, as the Gazette puts it, the oldest of the Air Force’s half-dozen or so falcons and has traveled with cadets for more than 20 years. Aurora’s two-inch talons make the bird difficult to handle if upset and Aurora, according to the Associated Press, is temperamental. She does not perform at games. She does, though, fly for exercise over the academy’s athletic fields. These gyrfalcons typically live around 25 years in captivity.
“I think they had them for a couple hours and then they realized it was a bad mistake,” Dollar said. “When Aurora started thrashing around in the crate, they decided that wasn’t a good thing.”
The falcons are guarded at the school and have an assigned guardian cadet when they travel. Wrangling them can be difficult and they have, at times, escaped. Before the 2010 Independence Bowl, a falcon took off and was later found in downtown Shreveport, La.
Because of the bird’s injuries, Air Force had only one falcon at the game, which Army won, 17-14. There’s a long history of pranks involving the service academies and their football rivalries, Navy and Army getting the most attention. The midshipmen reportedly once took Army mules and cadets took one of the Naval Academy’s goats.
“We are taking this situation very seriously, and this occurrence does not reflect the Army or U.S.M.A. core values of dignity and respect,” the West Point statement added.
Aurora is a white phase gyrfalcon, a species “that is extremely rare in the wild and whose beauty will take your breath away,” Dollar said. He added that handlers must be federally licensed and cadets who handle the birds spend two months in training.
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