Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus

Utukok River, Alaska  68°44’3.29″ N 161° 3’39.90″W Elevation 484 meters.

When Steve, a biologist specializing in Arctic birds, saw the gyrfalcon friends who’ve known him much longer said they’ve never seen him so excited.

Our adrenalized chatter turned to silence as the swift white arrow circled overhead scolding us with her high-pitched scream. If I’d stuck with Latin in college, I’d know that gyr refers to the Latin gyrus, or curved path. After all, this falcon is the only one that circles while seeking prey.

Gyrfalcons dress in a variety of colors—white, brown, black and anything spotted in between—Steve marveled at seeing one so white, pure as snow.

“The white ones are from Greenland,” he whispered.

As the falcon circled, a single white feather fell from the sky. I half-heartedly paddled toward it in my kayak—wanting to catch it; wishing it were falling instead towards Steve. In medieval times the gyrfalcon, because of the difficulty in capturing them for falconry, were reserved for royalty. Steve, passionate about the Arctic and its future; a king of conservation, seemed most deserving.

The journey from Greenland to this remote spot on the Utukok River was over 2,000 miles. Nothing, perhaps, for this hearty bird that spends much of the winter riding out the cold on sea ice far from land.

Our meeting lasted maybe a minute, but it was a minute that mattered. Years later I still remember the moment and the bird has evolved into a symbol of hope—hope that maybe my words can help. Help save what I hold sacred. Who knew when I’d be in the Arctic again.

Last week, three years later when I least expected it I met a gyrfalcon again; this time a speckled specimen. He was captive, in the hands of a falconer, but stunning all the same.

The falconer, Jason, introduced us to a great horned owl, golden eagle, osprey and a kestrel. The gyrfalcon was the final act. With each bird, he rattled off a list of facts that differentiate one raptor from another. Ospreys are the only raptors that rely only on fish. They nest on the tip tops of old snags, trees and telephone poles while bald eagles prefer to roost just a little ways below. Want to know how to tell a bald eagle from a golden? (When they’re immature it’s not always easy to tell the difference.) Golden’s legs are coated in feathers all the way down to their talons. Bald eagles are bald. We don’t have many goldens in the Tetons because we don’t have enough of their favorite delicacy, rabbits. But if we did, you might notice that the females (which are bigger) target different prey than the males in order to maximize a single territory’s bounty. Meanwhile peregrine falcons eat most anything. That’s why they’re so widespread.

Jason brought out a peregrine falcon, who surveyed the crowd with her deep obsidian eyes. He asked us to guess how much she weighs. 30? The bidding began. We were hopelessly off target. Jason stuck his finger into the bird’s chest, his finger disappearing up to his second knuckle in a thicket of feathers. The bird weighs just three pounds, the size of two fists stacked upon each other capped with a head.

Peregrines have been clocked at 250 miles per hour while gyrfalcons, the largest raptor of all, hold the record in straight flight. Owls, on the other hand, are extremely slow flyers, able to idle out at ten miles an hour as they listen for the sounds of prey hiding the dark. What owls lack in sight—they only see in grey scale—they make up for with their ears. An owl can hear your heart beating in your chest and can pinpoint prey buried up to 18 inches in the snow. The reason owls can turn their heads so far? 14 bones in their necks. As humans we have to settle for seven.

Listening to the traits specific to each raptor, I was amazed at the specificity of each species niche. As a result, there isn’t a singular King (or Queen) of the sky. Success takes on a wide definition; strength takes many forms. Each bird was born to do what it does, diverse as that may be. Maybe a birdbrain is a blessing—seems to me, our species spends far too much time building definitions that were never meant to be and in the process forgetting that power lies in our differences.


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