A perfect partnership

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Logo: Hawk Conservancy Trust

By Gary Benton, Head of Living Collection at the Hawk Conservancy Trust

Gary holding Lester the Merlin
Gary Benton, Hawk Conservancy Trust Head of Living Collection, with Lester the Merlin (Hawk Conservancy Trust)

Growing up as a lad, I was fortunate enough to be deeply involved with birds of prey. My father was a falconer and we had various birds at home that I was lucky enough to work with.

It was then that I decided to pursue a career working with birds of prey. I began by working at the Hawk Conservancy Trust more than two decades ago and have, of course, never left! From that moment on, I had access to a vast array of species of birds of prey to potentially work with. I gradually started to understand more about all their different traits and specific needs, and I quickly became very fond of falcons. Their nature and the way you need to work with them is quite different to other species. You’re working with an animal that’s full of explosive energy, highly reactive, easily excitable, and can often be startled with things within its surroundings and any changes around them. A lot of care and attention needs to go into the way you approach working with them, and you really have to work hard to gain their trust.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with a range of falcon species over the years, but there was always one that I hoped I would get the chance to work with - the Merlin! This is the smallest bird of prey in the UK, renowned for being challenging to successfully train and fly and, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating and beautiful falcons there is.

Lester the Merlin sitting on a tree stump
Gary Benton’s Merlin, Lester (Hawk Conservancy Trust)

Just over 10 years ago, I realised my dream when I became the proud owner of a 12-week-old Merlin whom I named Lester, after horse rider Lester Piggott (because of the size comparison of course). I quickly got to work becoming part of this little bird’s life, and I loved every minute of rearing and training him.

In his first year, as a juvenile bird, his feather colour was light brown from a distance, but as you looked closer his feathers were a montage of every shade of brown you could imagine with odd faint flicks of white and black giving him such detail that it almost looked like he was painted.

After his first moult, he started to gradually replace juvenile feathers with a mix of adult greys across his back and tail and developed a burnt orange collar. I think Merlins are one of the most striking birds of prey, particularly in the sun when the feathers shine with all those colours. 

Flying Lester has been so much fun over the years and I have many happy memories with him. I generally fly him in the displays at the Hawk Conservancy Trust from autumn to spring, and he gets a well-earned rest during the summer to moult. He has rarely flown off out of sight without coming back of his own accord (I’ve just jinxed this now, haven’t I?) and has managed to create some jaw-dropping moments during the displays. One of the things I always love about his flying routine is that he enters the display very discreetly from out of sight. Many visitors have no idea that he’s even present until the commentator points him out. It’s not too surprising though as he’s just 25cm tall, with a wingspan of around 50-60cm and weighing a mere 160g.

A Marlin in flight
Lester the Merlin takes flight! (Hawk Conservancy Trust)

I love the moment when he bursts into action and the focus of the audience is drawn to this miniature rocket that explodes from the cover of his tree and immediately starts to hunt my swing lure. The lure encourages him to twist, turn and stoop as if he were hunting a small bird. He uses every ounce of his energy to chase and pursue this prize, and that’s the challenging part of working with a Merlin; it’s incredibly difficult to keep the lure away from him until that final moment of his hunting success.

In 2021, Lester turned ten years old, and the milestone birthday gave me pause to reflect on some of the amazing times I’ve had with him. His last season was one of his best, with some really explosive flying. If you’d ever like to see him fly then please come and watch him in action this winter at the Trust!

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First published in CJS Focus on Working with Wildlife in association with The Wildlife Trusts on 17 October 2022. Read the full issue here


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Posted On: 30/09/2022

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