Nikita grips my left arm so tightly that it hurts, despite the leather glove that shields me up to my elbow. She's staring at me with inky eyes, and I can tell she's got a lot to teach me. To that end, I've come to her home turf, a field long abandoned by the forty-niners of central California's gold rush.
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 (tacticalavianpredators.com), 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 (westcoastfalconry.com).
"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.