Class starts Friday at 9 a.m., and while we would normally spend an hour or two outside learning how to carry and lift birds, because of the unseasonable rain we barely break from lectures for the next day and a half. Amid high-pitched outbursts from Barbary falcons Alexandria and Priscilla, Tigan begins with a lesson on bird terminology, teaching us that falconers are allowed to trap only "passagers," birds less than a year old (identified by their dull-colored plumage). While most raptors can be trained to hunt, red-tailed hawks are particularly adaptable and hardy, the best choice for novices. (Tigan deals mostly with falcons, whose speed and hunting style make them more efficient workers.)
All day long Tigan gets us accustomed to handling the birds, feeling their weight (just over a pound), and maneuvering them by gently pushing their tail feathers. After a night in a nearby Hampton Inn, I return the next morning for coffee, muffins, and a lesson on analyzing bird upchuck.
The first break in the weather hits Saturday at noon, and Tigan, transporting the birds on perches chained to the back of a golf cart, leads us to his neighbor's 3,000 acres of rolling green hills. He picks up Nikita, who will demonstrate her repertoire. Falcons, which can have a three- to four-foot wingspan, can see a morsel of meat the size of a pencil eraser from a mile away. They kill prey with speed, dropping thousands of feet out of the sky at 100 to 200 miles an hour - a recent National Geographic study clocked a peregrine falcon at 240 mph - balling up their claws to knock their victims senseless.
During a regular hunt, Tigan lets Nikita fly free; she returns to his wrist when she feels like it or when he calls her with a whistle. Today, after taking off her tiny hood, which keeps her calm, and releasing the nylon cord tying her foot to his glove, Tigan lifts his left arm into the air, waiting for Nikita to ruffle her feathers. When she appears ready, he thrusts his arm up, and she takes off, circling some 150 feet above us. Two minutes later Tigan blows the whistle, swinging a large sailfish lure - minus the hook - from a rope in front of his body. From about a mile away, Nikita charges Tigan, knocking his hat to the ground. "Nikita, Nikita! She played a joke on me!" he says with a laugh as she flies off. Four more takes, and Nikita captures the lure each time, dropping with it to the ground and pecking at it. We give her space to "kill" her prey; Tigan replaces the plastic bob with the good stuff: hunks of raw quail.