MOSCOW - When President Bush joins other world leaders in the Kremlin tomorrow to celebrate Russia's victory in World War II, he'll be protected by hordes of police, phalanxes of metal detectors, sophisticated air defenses and - not least - Masha and Alpha.
The two female hawks are part of a squadron of five trained raptors whose job it is to help guard the red-brick bastion of Russian power: Not from missiles or bombs, but from the dreaded Moscow gray crow.
These sinister-looking crows - with black wings, heads and tails but gray chests - occasionally swoop down to knock people in the back of the head. They drop stones on skylights and atrium roofs, littering lobbies with glass shards. Worse for the Kremlin, perhaps, they foul sidewalks, rip up beds of tulips and slide down onion domes, scratching the gold leaf with their claws.
In the early morning and late afternoon, before the crowds of tourists arrive and after they have departed, military handlers launch the hawks from rawhide gauntlets. Using whistled commands, the handlers direct the birds to snatch crows out of the skies above the Kremlin's glistening domes - rewarding the hawks with food after every successful kill.
The hawks don't hunt when the grounds swarm with visitors, because some animal lovers consider the practice cruel. The Kremlin hawkers shrug. "I would call it natural selection, because it's the stronger bird that kills the weaker one," said Maj. Valery P. Verbitsky, the officer in charge of the squadron.
As a boy, Verbitsky bred pigeons on the roof of his Moscow apartment building; in school, he studied ornithology. His cherished dream, then, "was to catch a hawk or a falcon."
When his commander asked in 1987 whether he wanted to head the raptor squad, he seized the chance.
Verbitsky, a trim man in his early 40s, traps new birds in the forests outside Moscow, supervises their care and training, and scans the skies above the Kremlin's Cathedral Square for the silhouette of gray crows.
He also selects the bird handlers from among the young recruits who come from all over Russia to guard the Kremlin. He looks for calm, gentle soldiers with the patience to learn to work with the animals. "It is well known that birds don't like aggressive people," he says. "They can sense them."
Pvt. Dmitry Krutov, 20, and Pvt. Aleksei Leontief, 18, carried their birds, Alpha and Masha, out to show to a couple of visitors one morning earlier this month. The birds live in a small aviary tucked away in a wooded corner of the Kremlin compound, just over the crenellated wall from the Moscow River.
"Each bird has its own character," said Krutov, from the city of Ekaterinberg. "Alpha's? It depends on the weather. When it's gloomy, she's very depressed. And she treats different people differently."
Leontief, Masha's handler, has been on the Kremlin's raptor squad for only two months. Friends in his hometown of Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia "say I'm crazy, that I'm insane" for working with birds. "But I'm happy. They're beautiful."
As the two hawks perched on their handlers' gloves, a gray crow flitted among the branches overhead and cawed - an all too familiar sight in Moscow.
The crows can be seen hopping grimly through snowdrifts in winter, skating across tin roofs in warm weather and pecking through trash containers at any time of year. Like most crows, they're attracted to bright objects: one Moscow resident recently spotted a crow with a dead rat in its mouth, admiring itself in the rear-view mirror of a BMW.
For centuries, these birds have survived as scavengers in central Russia's towns and cities, building nests on chimneys, fire escapes and pipes. Chroniclers first mention them living in Moscow around the time of Ivan the Terrible, in the mid-16th century.
For several decades, ornithologists have measured Moscow's crow population during an annual census of nests along a 7-mile route from the Lenin Library near the Kremlin out past Moscow State University in Sparrow Hills.
During the late Soviet era, for some reason Moscow's crow population zoomed. In 1963, census-takers counted 27 gray crow nests along that route, said ornithologist Vladimir M. Konstantinov. By the end of the 1980s, there were 300.
The boom kept Kremlin groundskeepers busy. In the early 1980s, they were netting 300 to 500 crows a day. The damage, the noise, the mess were getting out of hand.
"This square here?" Major Verbitsky said, gesturing to the cobblestone traffic plaza in front of the Ivan the Terrible Bell Tower. "It used to be solid black with crows."
During the Soviet era, hunters were occasionally brought into the Kremlin to shoot the birds. But officials were understandably nervous about people firing weapons near the headquarters of the Soviet government.
So in 1984 authorities founded the small colony of raptors - which, at times, has included falcons as well as hawks - to hunt the pests.