Which small British falcon has been abused by humans?
As a young boy in Britain during the early 1950s, I did not contribute to the well-being of merlins. These are small, fierce falcons that hunt other birds by attacking them in flight, and appear somewhat pigeon-like, which has earned them the nickname of pigeon hawk. Their name originates from the French word esmerillon, which was shortened to merilion, and describes a small hawk.
At that time, I was given my first merlin egg by a colleague at elementary school. It was exchanged for several much smaller yellowhammer and pipit eggs, and I was told two adult birds were nesting in the nearby mixed woodland known as Redhouse, not far from York. I doubted the assertion. It was more likely the egg came from a nest in the Yorkshire Dales, the merlin’s preferred habitat. Today, there are no merlins at Redhouse, although buzzards may breed there.
The rusty brown egg , about the size of a wood pigeon’s, became my prize possession in the egg collection, largely because shortly thereafter I had to end the hobby because the British government made it illegal to collect wild birds’ eggs. I never saw the species in Britain but am aware of the persecutions they suffered over the centuries. I believe I still have the egg but have lost track of the whereabouts of its container
It was the falcon of choice for important European ladies during the Middle Ages, who used the bird in competitions to chase down and kill skylarks. Even today, some merlins are kept in captivity and used to hunt small birds. Falconry has been the sport of kings for centuries and there are still instances of wild falcon and hawks’ eggs being snatched and supplied to falconers for a price. Merlins were persecuted by gamekeepers, or shot, stuffed and placed in glass-fronted cases by collectors. Fortunately, their population was relatively stable when I received my merlin egg, but shortly afterwards their numbers were decimated by poisonous pesticides. More recently, the bird has lost habitat to deforestation and industrial farming and begun to move into urban areas where it can easily prey on small birds. Today, there are approximately 1300 breeding pairs in Britain, and this bird-of-prey has been added to the country’s “red list” of endangered species, along with hen harriers.
I had to wait until I arrived in California before seeing my first merlin. They are a winter visitor and are seen along the Marin Headlands. More recently, I thought I had discovered a merlin sitting on a branch a couple of feet above my bird feeder, but on closer inspection, it turned out to be a sharp-shinned hawk. The usual goldfinches, siskins, linnets and chickadees were nowhere to be seen. They returned once the hawk had flown away.
I am not sure how I feel about birds being kept in captivity since I have enjoyed the company of caged budgerigars and cockatiels in the past. Laws now more effectively control this practice and it is no longer usual to capture wild birds because of their color, song or ability to entertain.