Aurora, the 22-year-old gyrfalcon mascot of the Air Force Academy, will be back in action this Thursday after recovering from injuries sustained when a student prank went wrong earlier this month.
Air Force football will take on Colorado State University Thanksgiving Day at 1:30 p.m. in Colorado Springs, and Aurora will be there to greet fans.
“She likes getting her picture taken with a bunch of people,” said Joseph Kloc, an Air Force senior and member of the elite falconry club. “She's a little bit of a diva.”
Aurora also made an appearance at Air Force’s game against New Mexico on Nov. 10, Kloc said, but didn’t travel to the University of Wyoming in Laramie last week because of icy weather.
The falcon was injured when two West Point students stuffed her and another bird into dog crates before the rivalry football game Nov. 3. Aurora bloodied a wing, likely thrashing around in the crate, before the students turned the birds over.
While football-game pranks are a time-honored tradition between military schools, they’ve never before involved birds. That’s according to the recollection of Lt. Col Don Rhymer, who runs the falconry. He was “ecstatic” to see how Aurora was recovering.
“Not only was she eating properly, but she flew to her perch and flew around her pen,” he said. “She's going to make a full recovery. That was the first true moment of relief.”
Falcons are a big part of Academy football games. Some fly, while others, like Aurora, are presentation birds that meet fans. Kloc estimated Aurora has attended 120 games in her decades-long career.
“She’s probably traveled more than I have,” he quipped.
Kloc himself is a rare bird, one of 11 students that make up the Academy’s falconry program. Some 20 to 30 apply for it every year, he said. They train the birds and travel with them to football games and more somber outings, like tragedy assistance events at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
The hours are long, but the camaraderie with his fellow cadets and the birds make it worth it for Kloc.
“This is kind of closest to having a pet at the academy you are allowed,” he said. “They're still wild animals, but you can get somewhat of a bond with them.”