Thursday, July 06, 2006


Someone once told me big hawks are like sports cars. They make up for the inadequacies of their owners. It's nice to know us girls had it right all along. Empress Catherine the Great may have been a little ... eccentric, but she knew which hawk she wanted to fly. Mary Queen of Scots may have been imprisoned in a barren Northumbrian castle, death warrant readied to sign, but she knew which hawk she wanted to fly, too.

So what is it about merlins? Let me first dispel any thought that they are a lady’s hawk. There are plenty of chaps enlightened enough to understand that size isn’t everything when it comes to hawks. But it's a simple as this: I just love merlins. Always have. A tiny gyrfalcon, without the tantrums, without the fear of bumblefoot and aspergillosis. The same powerful flight, the same predacious intent, the same intelligence, fire and good humour, all packed into a six-ounce frame. Taymur Mirza, author of the Persian masterwork Baz Nama Yi Nasiri said "this little falcon is beyond all praise." True, true true!

My first day out with merlins was a special one. I was with Greg Liebenhals and Phil Hawkes on the DZ at Everleigh, on Salisbury Plain. Greg and Phil’s merlins had two classic ringing flights, one after the other. The merlins went up and up in purposeful circles, wings flickering, until drifts of cloud showed beneath them and they became bare specks in a looming, cumulus-packed sky. Eventually my eyes fizzled and winked with water, and I lost sight of the hawks, picking them up only later as they fell to earth in stoops so fast they were like scratches on the retina.

Despite their Miltonic satanic aspect, merlins are frighteningly amiable birds. My first parent reared hacked jack merlin would patter across the floor while I watched television; he liked to sit on my feet, his feathers covering both our toes, his chin feathers puffed out and his head the shape of a cheerleader's pom-pom. But take him out in the field, and he was transformed. All sleek energy: fine little toes gripping the glove, head flat and nape raised, eyes scanning the ground, horizon and sky all at once, looking for all the world like a miniature goshawk in yarak. After an unsuccessful flight, he’d speed back to the glove; and a hawk, even a miniature one, returning to the glove from two hundred feet up and a quarter of a mile away, is a particularly cherishable thing. They are just the friendliest of hawks: one imprint female I flew won a place in my heart by carrying her quarry two hundred yards uphill to my fist. Lord, I was glad there was an audience; falconers' tales are far worse than those of any fisherman...

In Britain, merlins breed on upland moor and sheepwalk. The jacks are easier to spot than the brown females. You’ll see a granite outcrop, or boulder, and a little blaze of pepperpot-shaped fierce blue on top where a jack merlin sits, head sunk into his neck, and through a telescope, you can see where the fog has draggled and darkened the tips of the tiny blue feathers on his crown.

Down here in East Anglia, we have wintering merlins. They’re nomadic, dramatic, and every time I see one my heart swells with love and regard. You’ll be driving through the uneven, sinking asphalt roads, car rocking from side to side like a boat against the swell, and you’ll pass a merlin sitting unconcerned in a blackthorn bush, her yellow toes bright against the wet black twigs and her head turning to watch you go past. Hello! Or you’ll be wandering across the world of drains and ditches, sugarbeet squeaking underfoot, breathing that oddly underwater fenland air — truly, this land smells of water, as pervasively as if the tide had only just gone out— and you'll hear the seep seep seep of alarmed pipits, and a slur, a ripple in the air, and past you speeds a merlin. Merlins in fast, low-level flight fall, rather than fly; they fall horizontally across the landscape as if gravity came from the west or east, rather than from below. They clip and burn across ground. It's as if they find a crack in the wind, like splitting slate, and they cleave through it. An old falconer friend of mine took a trained merlin to Sweden to put in an wind-tunnel for Saab aeronautical engineers. The merlin apparently took all this in its stride, and flew unconcernedly through the entire Beaufort scale from 0 to 12 with an ease that completely freaked the boffins out. They couldn’t work out how it was possible.

Smelleken is Dutch for merlin, by the way. Meep!

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