Finding Flight with the Falcons

Considering the peregrine, who are we to think we belong in the air? /

A few years ago, my wife and I lived in an apartment about a block from Louisville’s Cherokee Park: 400 acres of grassy hills and woods, with a busy creek that runs through the heart of it and on to the Ohio River. The park is home to all kinds of wildlife, who sometimes wandered outside the park’s boundaries and into our busy, urban neighborhood. Once, I spotted an eight-point buck in our alley, trotting away from the park towards Bardstown Road, like he had errands to run in town.

Speed Has a Mustache

On another morning, I was about to get into my rusted Volvo when a trash can about five feet away began to shake, scaring the bejeezus out of me. I stood frozen for a long moment, wondering what might be inside. My first thought was raccoon, but my experience with raccoons is that if they’re smart enough to get in, they’re smart enough to get out. My next thought was possum, which was met with an initial disgust at the creature itself, and then a deeper disgust at the thought of a dead possum rotting in my trash can. I decided to turn the can on its side and give the creature a chance to escape.

I took a step towards the can and immediately drew back as it shook again. Suddenly, perched on its rim and staring furiously at me was not a possum or a raccoon, but a peregrine falcon.

As a kid, I had a weird obsession with raptors. In addition to my stacks of field guides on North American birds of prey, I had sketchbooks full of them. My favorite book of all was a collection of pen and ink drawings of golden eagles, osprey, red-tailed hawks, and peregrine falcons. The peregrine had always been my favorite. This was an encounter I’d dreamed of my whole life. And it was emerging from the garbage.

Peregrine falcons have creamy feathers on their chests and legs, mottled with dark gray-brown spots and streaks. They appear to be wearing a dark gray cloak that covers the top of their heads, their backs, and their wings. On some birds, the cloak is blue-gray, and on others, it’s a brown-gray. The one I met at my trash can was distinctly blue-gray. Their tail feathers are white with black horizontal racing stripes. Their most remarkable feature is the black “mustache” that extends from around their telescopically powerful eyes and down the sides of their faces. They look like painted warriors.

As a kid, you learned that the cheetah is the fastest animal on earth, but this is only partially true. Cheetahs will beat anyone in a land race, with bursts of speed up to 70 miles per hour. But in a contest of pure speed, cheetahs have nothing on peregrines.

Falcons are built for speed. If you compare their architecture to that of hawks or eagles, the difference is immediately noticeable. Hawks and eagles have wings and tails shaped like fans, built to maximize surface area and grab every bit of the wind as it passes over them.

Falcons, on the other hand, are angular. Their wings are narrow and pointed; their tail feathers stick out in long, straight lines. They are like fighter jets or missiles, built for agility, and the peregrine is their king.

A peregrine will spot prey from an immense height and literally dive bomb it, folding its wings and diving headfirst towards its goal. To the naked eye, it looks like a simple enough maneuver, but recently, scientists have been studying the way the shape of the falcon’s wing changes during the dive. As she accelerates towards her prey, her wings open slightly while cupped around the body. The leading edge of the wing takes on a wavy shape, and feathers on top of the wing pop up. This increases the efficiency of airflow around the falcon’s body, increasing lift and making the dive both faster and more controlled. Falcon nostrils have a bony sort of baffle called a tubercle, which prevents air from directly entering their lungs while in a dive—without it, they couldn’t take the pressure. They reach speeds of over 200 mph.

Once a falcon has closed the distance on her fleeing prey, she unfolds her wings, flipping her talons forward. Some say the impact alone is often enough to kill the prey.

Learning to Fly

Regardless of your beliefs about the age of the earth or the age of the human race, I think we can all agree that, for humanity, the ability to fly was only recently acquired. Surely, we’ve aspired to fly as long as we’ve been around, but for most of our history, it has been the stuff of dreams and fantasies. Even now, our experience of flight is always mediated by technology—or, at least once in my life, by a combination of fierce pain and pharmaceuticals.

It happened while I was getting epidural blocks in my spine for pain from herniated disks. For the treatment, I lay facedown on an operating table while a doctor drove a very large needle in between my vertebrae, monitoring its progress on a fluoroscope.

At one point, I lost consciousness. The room went black and I found myself airborne, hovering above Los Angeles at night, free as a bird, taking in the sprawling grid of fluorescents and headlights. (This was remarkable, in part, because I had never been to LA.) It was vivid. I flew uninhibited and unmediated, leaning into the wind, rising and dipping at will.

Eventually, the lights on the horizon grew brighter and brighter, and my consciousness returned to the operating room, where monitors beeped loudly and the doctor in charge of the big needle alternately barked orders at nurses and asked, “Mr. Cosper, can you hear me?” I was told that she had hit my “vagal” nerve, resulting in a “vagal episode,” in which my heart rate and blood pressure temporarily dropped.

Aside from such hallucinations, the rest of our experiences with flight are mechanized, and for those of us without a pilot’s license, quite passive. We stand in long lines, sit in tiny seats, listen to monotonous announcements, and then brace ourselves while engines thrum and roar and we zip down a runway in a hulking steel beast that somehow manages to lift off the ground.

My father is a civil engineer and has spent most of his career working on runways and airports. He passed his love of airplanes on to my brother and me. Dad took us to airshows to see the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds. We built model airplanes and collected big books full of pictures of military aircraft, taking pride in being able to name the aircraft on sight. We watched movies like Top Gun and Iron Eagle religiously. When a new US military aircraft appeared on the cover of Popular Mechanics, Dad bought us copies.

Shortly after we moved to Louisville, Dad took me along to some kind of corporate event related to airplanes and engineering in Lexington. I was only about nine, but I remember a conversation with my Dad on the drive home. The event itself was like a corporate science fair. Engineering firms and aircraft manufacturers had booths celebrating their major projects, and they were giving away coasters and baseball caps. One booth in particular had a sign that celebrated “The Miracle of Flight.” Being a good Christian literalist, I asked Dad if flying genuinely was a miracle. Dad laughed and shrugged. “Not really. Planes have to fly.” I asked him what he meant.

“There’s a thing called Bernoulli’s law. A wing isn’t flat; it’s rounded on the top. So when it cuts through the air, the air that goes over the top has to go all the way across the curve of the wing, while the air on the bottom goes straight across. That means the air on top has less pressure—it’s kind of spread out thin—and the pressure from the bottom makes the plane lift off. So it’s not a miracle. It’s natural. It’s necessary. Planes fly because that’s just how the world works.”

It’s been almost 30 years since that conversation, and I still find it difficult to swallow—especially while sitting in a plane that is taxiing towards a runway. To this day, every time I fly, just as the plane prepares to accelerate for takeoff, I pray, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” I’m still a bit uneasy with this man-made flight.

UPS flies Boeing 747s in and out of the Louisville airport all night long. On a clear night, when it’s warm enough and the mosquitoes haven’t yet claimed my backyard for themselves, I can sit on my porch and watch their lights move smoothly across the sky, one after another in a steady, mechanical rhythm. In the daylight, they’re graceful, effortless. When they come in to land, the engines might pulse, but often, they’re nearly inaudible.

When I was a kid, I’d see a plane in the sky and freeze, pointing and hollering for everyone else to pay attention. These days, I hardly notice. Somewhere along the line, I forgot to be astonished.

Simone Weil once wrote, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.” As she saw it, attention was an act of giving oneself over to something else, suspending the faculties of the will and the desire to control in order to behold, to receive, to attend to something outside of ourselves.

When we were kids, this was easy. The shock of the world’s ever-unfolding newness kept us wide-eyed and ready to learn. Seeing or hearing something new, we’d gladly give ourselves over to it—not assessing it, not critiquing it, just beholding it in awe—be it a movie, an animal, or a bunch of humans hurtling through the sky in an airplane.

Crowded Skies

In January of 2009, a US Airways flight out of LaGuardia airport struck a flock of Canada geese, forcing an emergency landing in the Hudson River. The images of that plane, floating on its belly while passengers made their way along the wings and fuselage to rescue boats, remind us that while the forces of lift are inevitable, the mechanics of jet propulsion remain fragile.

It turns out that birds are quite a problem for airports. Bird strikes cause millions of dollars of damage to airplanes each year, and the culprits aren’t just big birds like geese. Starlings—a common, small bird—are referred to in the aviation world as “feathered bullets.” Gulls are common culprits as well. A single bird can cause millions of dollars of damage to a jet turbine. If you were superstitious, you might wonder if they were defending their territory. Who are we to think we belong in the air?

Airports employ a variety of techniques to drive birds off: noisemakers, flashing lights, “Birds and Bunnies” crews with shotguns and air rifles, and, at some airports, trained falcons, including peregrines. Birds adapt to many of our attempts to frighten them off, but they never adapt to the sight of a natural predator.

One of my favorite books my dad gave me as a kid was a history of American military aircraft. It was in chronological order, and as you flipped through it, you saw the evolution of aviation technology: how planes went from being boxy, like kites with propellers strapped to the front of them, to being sleek and aerodynamic. We’ve learned so much, and yet we have nothing on the natural grace of a diving falcon.

No one has ever explained Bernoulli’s law to a peregrine. When she’s young, she sits in her nest and feels the wind over her primary feathers, feels the way nature invites her up, and she knows Bernoulli’s law more deeply, more fully, than you or I ever will.

From an incredible height, she spots her prey—a pigeon or pheasant foraging on the ground, or a duck winging across a pond. She leads with her head, tucking her wings. She is bullet-like; earth and prey rise to meet her. As she gathers speed, she opens her shoulders, steering the currents of air across her body like a surfer cutting across a wave, dialing in her trajectory. The finish will either be quick—a violent and blunt strike—or acrobatic—a somersaulting rush of feathers and talons.

With all we know, we are just barely scratching the surface of understanding how she does what she does, how she knows what she knows, how perfectly attuned to her deadly skill she is.

Looking Up

I stared at the falcon and she stared at me, utterly unintimidated by my presence. Something shuffled inside the trash can again, and the falcon turned its head slightly, keeping one eye on me and looking inside the can with the other. A moment later it disappeared into the can again. There was a flurry of noise: feathered wings beating and sliding against the hard plastic walls, talons scraping, and the distinct sounds of small animals snarling and gasping. Then it burst out, flying over my head in a rush of wind, with a chipmunk clutched in one foot.

I stood, dumbly, feeling the roots that tied my feet forever to the earth.

My friend Brian Brown, a pastor in Denver, is fond of asking, “What must God be like?” He asks it the midst of a great meal, or after a great conversation. I’ve taken to asking it after moments like that encounter with the peregrine. What must God be like that he makes such a fierce and beautiful creature? What must he be like if he makes it possible to lift a million pounds of steel and freight gracefully off the ground and fly it across the world? For thousands of years, gravity kept us chained to the earth, until someone discovered the trick—written into creation itself—that enables us to fly.

A peregrine falcon is not a senseless, meaningless thing. It’s a creature, made by a Creator, and it reveals something of that Creator’s imagination. In her novel The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt writes, “Isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?” I think the answer is “yes,” but only if we’re paying attention.

Mike Cosper is the pastor of worship and arts at Sojourn Community Church, a regular contributor to The Gospel Coalition, and the author of three books.

Follow The Behemoth on Twitter and Facebook.

Also in this Issue

Issue 27 / July 23, 2015
  1. Editors’ Note

    Issue 27 (our first anniversary!): Peregrine falcons, the storm that changed Western Christianity, and a wonderful word after waiting. /

  2. ‘God Blew, and They Were Scattered’

    God may or may not have played a role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada. What mattered is that everyone at the time thought he did. /

  3. Perhaps This Mid-May

    28 cycles of waiting. Then a final message. /

  4. Width, Length, Height, Depth

    ‘I can look nowhere / but up the sheer red walls’ /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 27: Links to amazing stuff /

Issue Archives