Feathered Fiends

Titanium -- one of the Air Force Academy's peregrine falcons -- zips just over the heads of students from Tempe High School's honors biology class. The raptor is about to snag a piece of meat on the end of string being swung by his handler when all hell breaks loose.

"A bird none of us had really seen swoops in from above and hits it in the back, hits the falcon in the back," says one student witness. "And the falcon falls to the ground. The Air Force guy runs over and tries to get it, but the falcon flies away before the guy can get to it.

"Then the birds fly up there and battle back and forth. One would jump on the other and then the other would fly out and jump on the first one."

It's ornithological combat that few humans ever see, a rare exhibition of the beautiful but brutal laws of nature.

The pitched battle is fought only 30 feet above the startled students, who are gathered on the school's football field for a demonstration by the Air Force Academy Falconry Team.

"It was close. You could hear them screech every once in a while," the pupil says.

The attacking bird -- which academy officials say might have been a wild peregrine falcon -- and Titanium continue their blood sport, parrying west from the school grounds and over an irrigated neighborhood lush with trees. This terrifies the local bird population.

"Every once in a while you would see pigeons fly up all over the place."

The academy's handler sprints after Titanium, leaping a fence and disappearing into the neighborhood.

"The show is over. We stayed out there for a while, but we really didn't see anything."

The theatrics astonish the students.

"All the girls were freaked out and teary and the boys were like, 'Man, that was really cool,'" the eyewitness says.

Titanium -- who has a radio transmitter attached -- is found by his handler nearly three hours later in a tree near McKemy Middle School, about a half-mile south of the initial attack.

"The bird had a small scratch on his face and he's fine," says academy spokeswoman Gloria Duffin.

Look for Titanium in an upcoming edition of National Geographic, which is producing a piece on peregrine falcons.


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