Equipment & Housing
Proper equipment is the most important and most overlooked aspect of successfully flying a merlin. Merlins have very delicate legs that are easily damaged. To get the most from your bird it needs to be one hundred percent healthy and feather perfect.
I use a standard aylmeri jess system: anklets, jesses, swivel and leash. I’ve had good results from goat leather and top quality, thin kangaroo for the anklets. The anklets are one centimeter wide and closed around the leg with a small “eyelet” grommet. Because I fly without jesses, I prefer a grommet to a grommet-less anklet because it makes it easier to replace the jesses after hunting and it also lets the jesses spin freely, keeping them from tangling. I cut the jess four millimeters wide and the finished product is 6inches long with slits cut in the end to attach the swivel; the actual length is probably not important if you don’t fly with jesses. I use a “small modified” Sampo swivel that has a small barrel with a slightly larger than normal ring and a small braided Dacron loop leash. I don’t use leashes buttons on any of my birds. It takes a few seconds longer to attach a leash without a button, but button leashes are more prone to getting tangled, especially with small birds.
(For those that prefer clips to attach your bird, Matthew Mullenix’s Y-swivel system works well and is explained in his book “American Kestrels in Modern Falconry”.)
Hoods & Boxes
Whether to hood your merlin or not is personal preference. I hood my merlins but I have a lot of hooding experience. Passage merlins can be very difficult to hood. Merlins travel well in a hood or a box. The box has the advantage of safety. If you do not have hooding experience I would recommend using a box with your first merlin, you have enough new things to learn. Clumsy handling of the hood-training process will slow your training.
You should use a lightweight hood that fits well. A merlin will quickly learn to throw a loose fitting hood. Dutch hoods can be easier for the novice to use because they tend to sit on the head better until you can get the braces closed. I've used a variety of blocks and patterns and currently prefer either Steve Tait's new blocks or Pete Watzke's blocks with a pattern that I have modified.
Indian hoods are typically lighter and merlins seem to like the wider beak opening. Some birds prefer them to the Dutch style hood. I use a modified Mavrogordato pattern and lightweight kangaroo leather. All of my females have worn either a 4.8 or 5.0 size hood and size 4.6 for jacks. The beak opening should not touch any part of the bird’s mouth.
Merlins travel very well in a box and it provides a safe environment for your bird, especially if you also travel with larger raptors. I use a box with my merlins and all traveled very well in it and none have ever damaged a feather. Light weight coroplast boxes are very light and easy to clean. I like to use a free standing perch as opposed to one that goes from side to side. It's easier to place the merlin in the box and they don't drag their tail across the perch when they turn around. You can make them yourself or buy them from several falconry vendors.
The type of perch you use will be influenced by the amount of space you have, where you plan to keep your bird and the type of perch you have had success with in the past. More important than the actual perch is the perching surface. I manage merlins on a shelf perch with a bow perch on top and provide them with a variety of perching surfaces. Merlins have very delicate feet and problems are much easier to prevent than to cure.
The main perching surface, as well as the front part of the shelf, is high-quality, dense, stadium Astroturf – it has a slightly rough texture and provides cushion under their feet. I put a section of long-leaf, “Welcome Mat,” type turf on the backside of the shelf. And finally I add a small square piece of a softer, thinner, stadium Astroturf on the front of the shelf. This may seem excessive but it’s the minuet details that will keep a merlin healthy.
A small bow perch works great for a merlin. My bows are six inches tall and the perching surface is six inches wide. I do have a small ring on my perch to attach the leash to but it is not designed to slide over the top of the perch. I don’t use sliding rings on any of my bow perches be it a Red-tailed hawk or merlin. Rings seldom slide properly over the top and frequently hang up. Most trained raptors do not jump down off their perch with enough force to carry the ring over the top. So in order to reach the opposite side of their perch they must learn to bate harder to pull the ring over and this isn’t a lesson I care to teach my birds. I place the bath pan on the side the leash is attached to and the leash should be long enough to allow the bird to bate to the opposite side without their tail contacting the bow perch.
I also use a Pole Perch when traveling or when I need to move the merlin to a new room when I'm cleaning the perch. I use 2" PVC and have found this to be a good size. Merlins typically don't make much effort to mute over the edge of the perch so if it's too large of a diameter they will mute on the perch. You can see detailed photos and videos of my perches in the "Store" section.
Another useful perch is the screen perch. My screen perches are shoulder high and disassemble for portability. They are my perch of choice for road trips. I make my screen perches from 1” PVC and use a small chain repair link to attach directly to the swivel. Since I don’t bell merlins, I attach a small bell to the perch to alert me if the bird is bating or having trouble. Again, make sure you use a good perching surface.
Merlins have a reputation of being easy to lose, I’m sure much of this reputation came before the use of telemetry. I use my telemetry often, merlins are pursuit birds and can chase quarry for great distances and catch them. If you don’t use telemetry on your merlin then yes, I wouldagree that they could be very easy to lose. Not because it’s going to try to get away from you, or that they are flighty, but because they are very gamey and small. A merlin that chases a bird off in the distance and catches it can be tough to locate. I’ve found that a very small transmitter with a modest range is sufficient to prevent loss. You should use the smallest transmitter you can find. I have usedMarshall’s Micro, LL Electronics Micro Merlin and Merlin System’s Mini-FMV all with good results.
The only acceptable methods for mounting that I have found are the backpack and the neck mount. I have put a backpack on several merlins; it is very convenient, you can use a more powerful transmitter and I think it keeps it completely out of their way. But, a proper fit is very important and more difficult to achieve with such a small bird. If you attempt a backpack, pay very close attention to the bird’s keel where the straps cross. You should check it often for signs of abrasion.
I neck mounted my transmitters for many years before the backpack came along. It sounds difficult but it’s far easier than you would expect.
I use a number ten rubber band. Thread the rubber band through the transmitter and then back through itself. I lick the rubber band, so it slides better, and pull it as tight as possible. I then place a small piece of food in the palm of my hand and stretch the rubber band around the tips of all five of my fingers with the transmitter dangling in the center gap of my fingers. (Your thumb will be going behind the bird’s head.) With the rubber band around my fingers I un-hood the bird, hold my opened hand in front of her and when she puts her head through the rubber band to take her tid-bit I close the rubber band around her neck. I’ve never had a bird object to this. I had one merlin that would allow me to open the rubber band in my hand and just put it on her un-hooded head without any food.
To remove the transmitter I use a small pair of blunt tipped “safety scissors”. I find it easiest to hold the antenna between my gloved fingers so when the bird stands up straight it stretches the rubber band slightly. Then just snip one side of the band and it will slide off. I find this much easier to do while un-hooded.
It may seem like much of this would be easier to do while the bird is hooded. However, I’ve found the opposite to be true. The hooded bird is jumpy when something touches her, or when she sees movement through the hood. It makes the whole process much more difficult.
I’ve used just about every receiver on the market. For many years I used the Tracker Maxima. This unit is very small and compact while still being one of the most powerful on the market. It fits in your pocket and deploys easily. It is very convenient to use a receiver you can carry with you into the field.
I now use the Marshall UHF system, you get the same small compact size but the superior range of the UHF signal makes it a perfect system for me.