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The Million-Dollar Business of Falconry

Thousands of years old, the sport of falconry involves top birds competing.

ByABC News
May 6, 2010, 10:22 AM

RAS AL KHAIMAH, United Arab Emirates, May 12, 2010 — -- Falconry is easily thousands of years old, originally a method of hunting food believed to have originated in the Middle East and brought back to Europe after the crusades. Today it's a million-dollar enterprise, with top birds competing for speed, that are trained and traded among Arabia's elite.

The sport plays on a bird of prey's innate skills and habits, flying overhead until it spots a target, then swooping down and attacking with its talons. The peregrine falcon, one of the most prized varieties, can fly up to 217 miles per hour and drop 300 feet in one second, killing a rabbit or pheasant.

They fly high and fast enough to catch other birds; in some cities falcons have been used to control an overgrowth of pigeons.

"The peregrine is the fastest creature on the planet, three times faster than the cheetah," said Jannes Kruger of Shaheen Xtreme Falconry in Dubai.

The birds are possessive, and won't naturally give up their catch, which is where the owner has to deftly practice the skill of trading with the bird, making it give up its win for another, smaller source of food.

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Traditionally, this is how a desert tribe would add meat and game to its diet.

The sport of falconry is now mainly for show, with trainers using a lure to attract the bird. It has an active following in the U.S., and despite some concerns from animal rights activists all but a handful of states permit the practice of falconry.

American Falconry Magazine cautions beginners they'll need to spend roughly $1,000 on their equipment and housing facility, and hunt with the bird a minimum of three times a week, three hours per day. April to September is the off season, when the bird molts a new set of feathers.