The bell might be a sign that recess is over, but these pupils are not returning to their classroom. At the Maximilián Hell Primary School in Štiavnické Bane, they are about to have a class attended by no other Slovak pupils, and probably none in the world for that matter: falconry.
As sixth-graders file out to the school yard, the screeches of birds of prey screeches can be heard from an aviary. They include falcons, buzzards, and eagles. These birds with bent beaks and sharp talons look around with penetrating eyes that allow them to spot a small mouse in the grass even several kilometres from above.
Once they are done with theory, falconer Zuzana Petrželová takes over. She is a non-pedagogical school staff member. On her hand sits a Harris's hawk, a Mexican bird of prey that hunts in packs just like wolves and is a popular species among falconers. The bird flies over to a tree. The first pupil pulls on a glove and the bird soars in, drawn by a piece of meat.
The pupils take turns and no one is afraid. They say that they like learning from live animals instead of from books.
"In our school, falconry is a compulsory subject starting with the fifth grade. It's one class a week with a theoretical and practical part," explains Zuzana Petrželová. She herself attended the school and has worked with the birds since she was ten.
"Pupils can actively participate even more and attend our falconry clubs. Every class turns out several falconers. A seventh-grader can have an eagle on their hand," Petrželová continues as the bird on her hand screeches.
"That's how it speaks to us," the pupils say.
Falconry saved the school
Falconry at Štiavnické Bane, near the picturesque popular tourist destination Banská Štiavnica, lives on thanks to the headmaster Pavol Michal. A new chapter in the history of the school started with his arrival.
"The school was about to be closed. Every year there were fewer and fewer pupils. They attended a school in nearby Banská Štiavnica," says Michal, who is a fervent longtime falconer himself.
"Falconry is my lifestyle. We started teaching it with my arrival. In the first year it was only a club, a year later it became an elective subject, and since 2010 it's been a compulsory subject."