Saturday, December 26, 2009

Merlin update

Between work, bunny hawking, training the new bird, holiday preparation, and shoveling snow, there hasn't been much time for writing lately. I hope to get back to active blogging again soon, but for now a quick update on the new merlin.

Several years ago, when I first trapped Stekoa, I had been flying small hawks for several years: most recently a passage sharpie, prior to that a series of kestrels. The new redtail seemed huge, and I marked it down as a female. Evidently it had been a very good hunter, as it was in high condition—higher even than I had realized. By the time the hawk was at a workable weight, and my perception of size had readjusted, it was apparent that Stekoa was likely a tiercel.

Now it seems I've done the same thing in reverse: After several years away from micro-raptors, the new hawk seemed smaller than it actually was. Of course the initial weight ("trap weight") would have been meaningless, as the hawk had been stuck inside a building for a week without food, and for the first few weeks the only training attempted was basic manning and hooding; the first priority was simply to get the bird to eat as much and as frequently as possible without jeopardizing its health or making it overly fearful as hawks in excessively high condition can be. We've now moved on to actual training (calling to the fist and to the lure) and the merlin has been responding well in the 190-gram-plus range—much more typical of a columbarius merlin (female) than a jack. So Wakulla (named for a river in Florida near which many columbarius merlins are trapped on passage) will hereafter be referred to as she.

(For what it's worth, neither my friend Karl Linderholm nor the two Game & Parks biologists who assisted with the banding questioned the initial ID, and there's enough overlap in size that it's still not definite, but the etiquette here in the West dictates that a hawk of unknown gender is generally regarded as female.)

For various reasons, I've been in no hurry with Wakulla's training. Hawks in general, and merlins in particular, usually progress more quickly than their trainers are ready to admit, and consequently are somewhat overprepared by the time they're brought to the field. But as this is my first merlin, and considering that passage merlins are notorious for carrying prey (this can be a major vice, and can even lead to the loss of the hawk), I see no harm in overpreparation. Certainly a raptor as pugnacious as a merlin isn't going to forget how to chase birds! I'll continue my deliberate approach for now, but I am starting to look forward to seeing Wakulla extend herself in pursuit of quarry. I'll be sure to write more when that happens, so please stay tuned...