Feasting on Birds: A Merlin Visits Lathrop

by Barbara Walvoord

Hmmm.  A bird swooped into a tree behind our house on Huckleberry Lane.  Dark back. Beak of a hawk or falcon. Smaller than the red-tail and red-shouldered hawks that also live in our trees,  but not as colorful as another small falcon, the kestrel. The bird book identified our visitor as a merlin.

Our merlin is on the move, migrating from summer breeding grounds in Canada or Alaska, and heading south for the winter, perhaps as far as Equador.

Our merlin was drawn to our land, as many of us are, by the numbers and beauty of its songbirds. The merlin’s sharp eyes serve as its binoculars, but not for bird watching.  Birds are almost the only thing a merlin eats. With rapid wingbeats and speeds of more than 30 miles an hour,  it attacks horizontally or from below.  Merlins may work in pairs: one flushing a flock of waxwings from below, and the other coming in a few moments later to take advantage of the confusion.

The European version of this fierce  little falcon was called a “ladyhawk” in medieval times, and was used by noblewomen– including Catherine the Great and Mary Queen of Scots–to hunt sky larks.

Decimated in the twentieth century, the merlin has made a comeback due to a ban on DDT and the merlin’s ability to adapt to life around towns and cities.  It likes open woods and fields (that would be us) but will also hunt in suburban yards and around bird feeders. It helps control the all-too-abundant invasive English house sparrow that has driven bluebirds from some of our residents’ nesting boxes. We went out on our deck and told our merlin, “Eat more house sparrows.”

Nature has its own balances, however.  Our bird-eating merlin is also eaten–by bigger birds The red-tailed hawk that lives in these same trees behind our house, and the great horned owl that we hear in our woods will eat our merlin if they can. At Thanksgiving, our Lathrop land is a feast of (and a feast on) birds.

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