Thursday, June 28, 2007

Birds Of Prey As A Profitable Niche Business

Nikita is a Lanner falcon, and her handler, Jim Tigan, 48, keeps her and nine other birds of prey - including owls, hawks and more falcons - plenty busy. Tactical Avian Predators (, Tigan's Browns Valley, Calif., company, contracts with governments and corporations to rid airports and businesses of nuisance birds.

Tigan recently finished an eight-month job for candy manufacturer Mars eradicating starlings from one of its Nevada plants. When Tigan and his flock aren't working, they teach the ancient craft of falconry: the hunting of wild game by a trained team of human and raptor. In most states a falconer must spend two years as an apprentice before getting a license; I'm taking the three-day introduction at Tigan's West Coast Falconry Academy (

"Maintaining a falcon is hard," Tigan warns me on the phone before I arrive, giving me a chance to back out. Insulted, I reaffirm to Tigan that I want the full experience, blood, guts, and all. I want to stand eye-level with one of the fastest creatures on earth, becoming its partner for an afternoon of preying.

It might seem antiquated to use hawks and peregrines instead of guns to kill ducks, quail, and rabbits, but 4,500 falconers are licensed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the North American Falconers Association ( says its membership is on the rise. A sport that originated some 2,000 years B.C. as a way to hunt for food - Genghis Khan helped feed his Mongol army with whatever his birds brought home - falconry became an elite sport during the Middle Ages, practiced by Arabian princes and British royalty. (Mary Queen of Scots was allowed to fly a bird from her window during imprisonment.)

Falconry demonstrations recently added by luxury resorts such as the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., have spurred the sport's growth. But these tours feature little interaction with birds - falconers lead tourists on nature walks, showing how hawks take off and land from their gloved wrists. Tigan's course, which costs $565 and includes breakfast, lunch and books, teaches students how to feed and care for a hunting bird and incorporates lessons on raptor biology, proper housing and training techniques demonstrated in the field.

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