A Cast Of Passage Merlins
By Eric Edwards
(Published in American Falconry September 2003)
I had no idea if this was going to work. Would they chase each other over the Texas horizon? Would one attack and kill the other? Or by some miracle would they actually hunt together?
It was noon on Thanksgiving Day and the Harris Hawks had already bagged a few rabbits for dinner. We were driving to more open country to fly the merlins, a pair of passage females named Lilly and Rose.
On the high desert plain of the Panhandle, open country is never far away. A fifteen-minute drive found us pulling up to a remnant farmstead, once just a bump on a thin horizon. Here a circular dirt drive wound around a metal-sided hay barn and a stand of cottonwood trees surrounded the old home’s foundation. Mourning doves lined the branches above like powder-gray pears. In the waste-high brush and tumbleweeds along the driveway several dozen English Sparrows chirped and flirted. . A meadowlark whistled from somewhere behind the barn.
Matt smiled and asked, “Are you going to fly them together?”
The two merlins perched in the top of the trees, ten feet apart. Much to my surprise they ignored each other. They both leaned forward and scanned the brush for sparrows, which were now hunkered down motionless around the barn.
I positioned a group of sparrows between the merlins and me. I swung the lure and instantly both birds left the tree. I ran in and flushed – each merlin locked her sights on a separate sparrow and pursued it down the side of the barn inches above the brush. The sparrows bailed back into the tumbleweed seconds before the merlins connected.
For fifteen minutes, Matt and I ran around the barn and under the trees flushing sparrows for the merlins while Diana and Jimmy served as air traffic controllers.
“I’ve got several sparrows right in front of me. Where are the birds?”
“You’ve got a merlin coming on your left. It’s Lilly, I think.”
“Rose is flying over the barn.”
It was exhilarating and chaotic, two of my favorite aspects of falconry. But we just couldn’t push the sparrows from the safety of the tumbleweed.
Matt and I were working the brush under the trees when a small group of Mourning doves flushed off the ground with Lilly right above them. She slammed into one of the doves, pulling most of its tail out. The tailless dove flew up into the sky with Lilly behind it trailing hopelessly. Lilly finally pulled off when she was 100ft up and came flying back towards us picking up speed. Without slowing noticeably, she pounded a dove right out of one of the trees, again pulling fists full of feathers out of the bird. She stayed right behind the dove while Rose headed in from the side. Double-teamed and nowhere to go, the dove headed for the tumbleweed under the trees. Both merlins crashed into the brush after the dove like tiny Red-tails – we stood motionless, listening, trying to figure out if they were killing each other or the dove. Then one at a time, the merlins jumped up above the brush, hovered briefly, then shot back down after the dove. It looked like a deadly game of Leap Frog. At last the dove blasted from the ground with both merlins right behind it. They chased it out of the trees and into a fencerow on the opposite side of the road. I ran over and found a jumbled mess of brown and gray feathers – Lilly had one foot on the dove and one around Rose’s leg. Rose had both feet on the dove, and the dove had one foot in the grave.
After untangling the birds, I handed Lilly off to Matt with her share of the dove while I fed Rose. We would have enjoyed adding some dark meat to our Thanksgiving game dinner, but not as much as watching the merlins eat their reward. Reflecting on what we had just witnessed, we all agreed that this was one of the most amazing flights any of us had seen. It was also the merlins’ first flight together. I thought to myself, “It can’t get any better than this.” I was wrong.
Lilly and Rose are both columbarius merlins, trapped in October of 2002. This is the second merlin cast I’ve attempted; the first ended early after one bird injured herself. I’ll share my experiences here and try to provide a few tips.
Why a Cast?
Are two birds better than one? I don’t know if I’d say better or that I caught more game with the cast as I would have caught with a single bird. But it sure was exciting, non-stop action.
For the 2002 falconry season I had set my sights on catching snipe. I bought a Barbary tiercel, had dozens of perfect snipe fields and bought a new dog, I was set – then my bird was killed by a Great-horned owl. Migration was starting and I had time to trap a merlin. But, I still wanted to catch snipe and I have never had any luck catching snipe with a merlin. So, I decided to fly a cast.
A cast wasn’t the solution to catching snipe. I found the main reason to fly a cast is to see a level of performance matched only by wild merlins. The competition between the birds made them fly faster, harder and longer than I’ve ever seen out of trained merlins. When flown together every flush was chased until the prey either made it to cover or was caught, they never broke off of a chase. I can’t remember a season when I had more fun, enjoyment and exciting flights.
My first challenge was how to get them into and out of the field. I had to park on the side of the road, climb through a fence and walk a safe distance into the field before releasing the birds. I came up with a small, portable, PVC cadge. I would carry the hooded birds on the cadge, cast them off then fold it up and put it into my vest. This worked very well. Midway through the season I was able to drive into the field and release the birds from my truck. Still, I often used the cadge to get the birds back to the truck.
I suspected that I would be better off hunting larger birds like doves and snipe. I feared that sparrows were too small for both birds to get a foot on and they would end up chasing each other, trying to steal the sparrow.
Conversely, they wound up fighting over larger birds and they ignored each other when one caught a sparrow. I believe it’s very important to have both birds consistently catching game before hunting them together. During the first week of flying them as a cast Lilly was doing most of the chasing and all of the catching, and Rose started chasing Lilly every time she caught. This was due to the fact that I didn’t get Rose consistently catching game before flying them together – she had only caught one sparrow on her own. I solved the problem by separating the birds for a few weeks until Rose was consistently catching on her own.
At first, when one caught a bird, I would quickly call the other bird down to the lure, and hood that bird, place it on the cadge and go retrieve the bird that caught. I did this a few times but quickly found it unnecessary. Instead, I opted to ignore the bird that caught and continue hunting.
I trained the birds separately until they had caught game on their own. The only difference was that I housed them both on a shelf perch built for two. The birds could get within a foot apart. I did this so when they were flown together they would at least recognize each other and hopefully not view each other as a threat.
I hood trained each bird, trained them to fly to the fist, introduced them to the same lure, got each bird free flying and catching game – then I flew them together on game.
I’ve flown seven merlins for falconry. I’ve hunted mostly sparrows, but they’ve caught a variety of birds. I would best describe the way I hunt with merlins as “loose” on marked quarry. In short, I release the merlin, find and mark quarry then call the bird in for the flush. Most merlins I’ve flown spent the majority of the hunt sitting in a nearby tree waiting for a slip. I flew the cast in the same manner. However, they spent the majority of the hunt, typically two hours, on the wing. I believe this was due to competition with each other, both birds wanted to be close and ready for a slip.
I hunted ninety-percent of the season in a 4,000 acre cow pasture. The majority of the field is treeless with inch-high grass and scattered palmetto bushes and two-foot diameter clumps of dense grass. I could not imagine a more perfect place to fly a merlin in Florida.
In the beginning I made the mistake of trying to get both birds in position for every flush. The problem with this was one bird would get there first and I would have to let that bird pass by and turn until the other bird was in position, then the first bird would be out of position and so on. I quickly realized this was frustrating the birds so I started flushing for the first bird in position. This worked well because if the first bird missed the other bird was right there to take up the chase.
The biggest difference I saw in the chases, when compared with flying a single bird, was that the cast never pulled off of a pursuit, I can’t remember even once. They pursued every bird until it was either caught or made it to cover, regardless of distance – the longest successful chase was measured at almost a quarter of a mile. However, the majority of the quarry we caught was caught on the initial flush.
The birds spent two hours a day flying and were incredibly fit. Several hunts lasted almost four hours with the birds flying hard the whole time – it was the falconer and falconer’s wife that eventually tired.
What did I do when one caught a sparrow? Nothing. I know this could be difficult for most falconers to grasp; we’re taught from early on that we have to “do” something when the bird catches game. There are countless techniques for “making-in” and transferring off of a kill, rarely will you see someone advise to “just let her eat it all in the tree.” The fortunate thing about catching sparrows with a female merlin is that she can eat the whole sparrow and still come back – I’ve caught hundreds of sparrows, the majority eaten in a tree, and I’ve never left a merlin in the field. I’m not against transferring a merlin off of its kill – I do it often. But I don’t panic if she flies with it to a tree and I don’t overdo “anti-carrying” training.
When one bird caught a sparrow she would either sit on the ground with it or carry it to the tree line, the other bird would ignore her. I would continue hunting, in the opposite direction, with the bird that didn’t catch.
When a bird caught I set a timer on my watch for fifteen minutes – after this time if the bird had not cached and come back or eaten and come back I would retrieve her.
Typically, the bird that caught would fly off to the tree line and cache her sparrow, then join back in on the hunt. I’m sure the competition encouraged caching – they wanted to get back to join the action. But they would also fly off and eat their sparrow – Lilly would almost always fly back and land at my feet after eating, I always had to go and retrieve Rose but she always flew down.
Catching game with two merlins is always going to be somewhat of a juggling act, requiring a high level of confidence in your birds. You have to let go of some control. If you run off after a bird every time it flies out of your sight, with or without a bird in it’s feet, you won’t get much hunting done.
I found it very comforting to carry a telemetry receiver into the field. If a bird went missing for more than a few minutes I could get a bearing on her and make sure she was still in the field. I used a Tracker Maxima receiver – I found it very helpful and convenient.
I would not advise anyone to fly a cast for their first experience with merlins. However, I would highly recommend the cast experience to any falconer that has successfully flown a few merlins.
From the first of November to the end of February they caught over 110 birds – my best day was five sparrows in two hours. That day, both birds cached every sparrow they caught. I don’t know how many they would have caught – I ran out of time and had to leave for work. And best of all, another falconer was along to see the girls fly. Of coarse, I acted like they did that every day.
There were so many amazing flights it’s tough to pick a favorite but I’ll never forget one Saturday morning sparrow flight. We had been hunting for an hour and Rose had already caught and cached a sparrow and dozens of others had narrowly escaped. The girls were flying around in their typical “waiting for a slip” pattern, flying lazily on the wind about fifty-feet high, flying overhead then drifting a few hundred feet away then back again. As I approached a small palmetto bush I flushed a group of six sparrows. Lilly saw the flush and forced the sparrows into the bush. Rose saw the action and was on her way. I ran to the bush – the birds were in position and I flushed. A sparrow blasted out the opposite side, heading for a head-high reed pond nearly a quarter of a mile away.
The sparrow dodged a head-on attack from Lilly but Rose was coming in from behind only twenty-feet away. She quickly pulled up behind the sparrow – as she reached out the sparrow shot straight up. Lilly was right there and as she forced the sparrow back down she was side stepped. Rose then reached out but again she was out maneuvered. This went on all the way across the field. One bird then the other attempting to snatch the speeding flash of feathers from the air before it made it to safety. Each bird had made no less than ten tries to catch the sparrow. Finally, ten-feet from a wall of reeds the sparrow and Lilly shot straight up and the two birds became one.
Lilly headed to the tree line to cache her sparrow. I had more sparrows still shuffling around in the bush. I flashed the lure to call Rose in for the flush. It was late in the season – she knew the game and had the speed of a conditioned athlete. Rose was twenty-feet from the bush when the sparrow flushed – it made it five feet before being taken out of the air.
I sat down and said to myself – “Surely, it can’t get any better than this.” But I sure hope it does.