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Midvale Journal

From pages to predator: Peregrine falcon brings novel to life for students

Mar 01, 2024 01:01PM ● By Julie Slama

Midvale Middle instructional coach Krista Edwards shared her peregrine falcon, Skye, with students to familiarize them with falconry which is in the class reading of Jean Craighead George’s “My Side of the Mountain.” (Julie Slama/City Journals)

A peregrine falcon taught a Midvale Middle School class a lesson: The “Skye” is the limit.

Now, those students’ reading comprehension may be soaring a bit higher.

To kick off reading Jean Craighead George’s “My Side of the Mountain,” a novel about a boy living in the wilderness and his falcon, sixth-grade English/Language Arts special education teacher Alycia Bradshaw welcomed the school’s instructional coach, Krista Edwards and her peregrine falcon, Skye, to introduce falconry to the students.

“Any kind of hands-on learning really helps define abstract concepts for students; in this book is this character training a bird to help him hunt is really abstract,” said Bradshaw, who includes this book in her teaching every year. “They don’t have any idea what that looks like.”

Bradshaw said that through Edwards bringing in her falcon and discussing falconry with her students, “Now, they get it.”

After a few words of preparation, Edwards, who has both state and federal licenses for falconry and wildlife education, pulls out the raptor.

“The first thing you guys are going to notice about her is that she has something on her face; we are covering her eyes for a reason to help her stay calm,” she told the class. “When I take the hood off, she’s just going to look around to get used to everybody in the room.”

Skye is a 3-year-old falcon. 

“I want you to imagine you’re living in the wild and you want to get some meat to cook over fire. How is this bird going to help you? We call her a hunter. She doesn’t eat berries and plants. What do we call that? Yes, a carnivore, a predator,” Edwards said. “Now, turn to your partner and share three things you already know about falcons.”

It’s part of a worksheet where students needed to identify what they know about falcons, what they wanted to learn and what they did learn about falcons in class.

After a few minutes, Edwards continued.

“Falcons are extremely fast. Anybody know how fast a cheetah can go? Sixty miles an hour. A peregrine falcon flies 240 miles an hour. People drive on I-15, drive about 70 miles an hour. So that means that your parents are going 1/3 of the speed of the peregrine falcon,” she said.

Then Edwards encouraged her bird to spread her wings.

“Are her wings more round, or are they more pointy? They are more pointy, indeed. Everything about this bird is pointy. That helps them travel through the air extremely fast. Look at her from the side. She kind of looks like a football. Why are footballs shaped the way they are? So they go faster. That’s called aerodynamic. It’s something that is kind of pointy and it travels through the air faster. She has a very aerodynamic body,” she said. “She has another thing in common with sports. Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen an athlete put black under their eyes. She’s got that black on her cheeks. Anybody know the purpose of that? When she’s flying high in the sky, above the trees, there’s no shade up there. The black is there so the sun doesn’t hit her eyes just like when athletes put it on, to prevent from being blinded by the sun. She also has incredibly sharp eyesight. If you’re on one end of the football field, she can read a newspaper on the other end. That’s how good her eyesight is.”

Edwards answers students’ questions about Skye.

“Does she know her name? When you call a dog, it comes running. She does not do that; she does not know her name, but she knows food. When I let her free fly in the desert and I want her to come back, I raise my arm up and I throw some food in the air. She sees that and comes in. She’s a hunting bird. Whatever she hunts is what I feed her. The other day we were out in the desert, she caught pigeons and that is what I fed her that night. If she doesn’t catch anything, I have leftover food from other meals that she caught,” she said. “She’s hard to train because she is a wild animal. I formed a bond with her through food. She was 6 months old when I got her.”

Then, Edwards asked the students to think about living in the wild and what they would worry about and what they would need to learn to survive. Then, she related it back to the text.

“When reading ‘My Side of the Mountain,’ I want you to think about how this bird helps Sam Gribley, our main character, survive and why a peregrine falcon is a good choice for a survival companion,” she said.

Edwards knows the book. She has a collection of the novel in the “little library” of falconry books at her home. It’s the one that inspired her to become a falconer.

“When I was about 6 years old, I told my parents I wanted a peregrine falcon. They got me a parakeet for Christmas. He was a great little companion bird, but I’ve always wanted birds of prey. There was something about them that was just so enchanting, and so powerful and wild,” she said.

The next year, she saw a red-tailed hawk eat a dove she was feeding.

“He came in, grabbed it and ate it right in front of me. I remember thinking this is the coolest thing, which is not a normal reaction for a 7 year old. I gravitated toward raptors early on. I think there’s something to do with the spirituality, the symbolism of them; they contain a different type of magic,” she said. “My parents gave me a bird identification book for Christmas, and I thought it was normal to read it from front to back. So early on, I had this vast knowledge of birds. My parents fostered that love. I remember when I was in third and fourth grades, we’d take trips to go see bald eagles.”

She moved from New Jersey to attended Brigham Young University when she noticed a Facebook post by someone her age that said, “I just got my first bird.”

“I thought it was rare doing falconry at my age because usually most people are retired. I noticed he was in Provo, so I reached out and thought ‘we’re going to be best friends.’ He invited me over that night, and I got to hold my first bird,” she said. “It was incredible. It was amazing. I knew, this is what I really want to do.”

The current president of the Utah Falconers Association remembers after passing a test, finding a sponsor to train her and following other laws and regulations. She got her first bird at age 22.

“I was living in BYU housing and kept my small American Kestrel in my apartment. Because they are so small, it’s recommended you keep them indoors. But I didn’t know what I was doing with that first bird. Nobody ever does. With your first bird, you feel like a deer in the headlights,” she said. “It’s a huge learning curve because you’re dealing with a wild predatory animal that knows it can survive without you and now, you’re trying to convince it to hunt collaboratively with you.”

She named her bird after the falcon god of Egypt. 

“A lot of falconers they start with these really epic names. Eventually you start naming your birds names like Joe and Frank,” she said.

Six months later, her kestrel was released to the wild.

“It was hard, yes and no. You develop a relationship with the animal, but you know you borrowed it from the wild, so it’s fair to return what was borrowed. For me, I knew I helped this bird through its first winter. Historically, first-year birds do not do well because they don’t have the experience to survive,” she said.

The seven-year falconer, who has more than 25,000 followers on her Instagram account (@Kristafeather), has traveled the world learning about falconry from a royal falconer to visiting a falconry education center.

“I got to handle and experience some birds I’ve never seen before,” she said. “I would love to win the Utah Sky Trials one these days. Last year, I was the first woman to compete in the 48 years of its history.”

Mostly, she flies Skye in the desert and has introduced her to students at Union Middle and Alta High schools, where Edwards previously worked. It gives students an opportunity to see the bird up close.

“She’s a good bird. She surprises me every day with just how mellow and calm and easygoing she is. Not all falcons are that way,” Edwards said. “Nobody gets to see them this close in the wild. It’s a way for the love of nature and that passion for the environment to be built into the classroom.”

She plans to return to that Midvale Middle classroom as the students continue their reading.

“It just makes the book come alive to the students. This helps them visualize what Sam Gribley is talking about,” Edwards said. “I’ll go teach them vocabulary and the equipment that falcons wear. I’ll demonstrate here’s what the jess is. Here are the leather straps and how you assemble them. Maybe they won’t use those words again, but it’s firsthand experience and learning that they’ll be able to relate to it when they go back in and doing a close read, or reread, for specific vocabulary.”

It may also inspire them to look more up about falconry as the main character did at his local library when he decided he wanted a hunting bird.

“I would say about 75% of the falconers here in America probably got their start from that book. I think that children’s novel made us realize is something that we can do,” Edwards said. “By introducing Skye to students, it helps them in understanding their reading and I can give them a glimpse into the life of a falconer. They’re getting an understanding of the opportunities that are available to them through literature and the people around them.” λ