Air Force's 23-year-old falcon mascot, Aurora, dies

The Air Force Academy's falcon mascot, Aurora, died Wednesday, the school announced. The bird, which made national news last year when she was abducted in a prank, was 23 years old.

Aurora was a white phase gyrfalcon, a "falcon species that is extremely rare in the wild," according to the school's falconry program.

She served as the academy's mascot for more than two decades. The Air Force cadets who work with the birds spend two months in training and are tested before they can handle them.

"In addition to serving as an ambassador for USAFA, she was an ambassador for all falcons, helping us educate the public on the importance of these majestic birds," the Air Force said in a statement announcing Aurora's death. "Her impact on the nearly 30 class years of cadet falconers and Falconry Team support staff cannot be overstated. She was a feisty, spirited bird who commanded respect. We all feel her loss deeply."

In November, Aurora suffered injuries to both wings when she was abducted by West Point cadets in a prank gone wrong ahead of the Air Force-Army game. Army and Navy have a long tradition of stealing each other's mascots ahead of games, but no one had previously been able to take an Air Force falcon.

Two West Point cadets took Aurora and another Air Force falcon, threw sweaters over them and stuffed them into dog crates, the school's falconry team adviser told The New York Times last year. The cadets turned over the birds the next morning, with Aurora's wings bloodied -- likely from thrashing inside the crate.

It was initially reported that the bird might need to be euthanized because of her injuries and advanced age, but Aurora's condition quickly improved and she made a full recovery within a month.

White phase gyrfalcons can live to be 25 years old in captivity, according to the Teton Raptor Center.