Which British bird-of-prey (raptor) was used to entertain humans in a sport where it had to chase and catch skylarks?
I think we merlins, or pigeon hawk, are delightful to look at as the smallest birds of prey in Britain, even smaller than kestrels.
Our name is derived from esmerillon, the old French name for our species. We have pointed wings and a relatively long tail that steer us swiftly through the air for hunting. Sometimes we hunt alone and sometimes in pairs. My male feathers are grayish-blue on the back and tail, and the front and chest are creamy streaked with reddish brown to black. There is some dark banding on my tail feathers, and I have yellow feet, with dark eyes and a dark beak. My mate has a dark brown back and is more likely to be mistaken for a British kestrel.
Our flight pattern is strong and maneuverable, and we love chasing other birds that we try to catch on the wing and eat. We don’t dive, we chase our prey, usually low over the ground, accelerating up to 30 mph (48kph). My taste is for tree pipits but a few days ago I tailgated a skylark but couldn’t keep up with it.
It’s been an unpleasant history for merlins who chose to live in Britain. Long ago we were used by fine ladies such as Mary Queen of Scots for a sport where we had to chase after skylarks. Later on, it was not unusual to be shot, stuffed, and put in glass-fronted display boxes, or our eggs were taken, and when these activities became illegal, we were poisoned by pesticides during the 1950s and 1960s, and now are being robbed of our habitat due to afforestation, over-grazing and land given to human recreation. There are only about 1300 breeding pairs left in Britain and recently we were placed back on the country’s “red list” of endangered species. I happen to live on the North York Moors along with about 40 other pairs of birds, but many of my colleagues live up in Scotland.
There are far more merlins in North America where our cousins breed in Western Alaska and through most of Canada and the northern United States. Because it’s colder over there, the relatives usually migrate and winter down the Western United States and into the south-east and Central America. They were nicknamed “pigeon hawk” because in flight they can be mistaken for a pigeon.
As well as slight coloration differences, merlins in America nest differently to us. They usually lay their eggs in abandoned nests built by crows, magpies and other hawks. We traditionally nest on the ground but recently, to improve brood security, we have begun to use the safety of trees at the edge of conifer plantations.
All of us like the countryside and love wide open moorland and prairie for hunting, but even here in Britain, we do go down to the coast for winter because of the better weather, and there’s more food down there at that time of year. Some of us have even begun to investigate the towns and cities that seem to spring up everywhere. We are joined by our relatives from Iceland who find it too harsh to stay there for winter.
We’ll see what the future brings. We’re still persecuted by some people because of our eating habits and there’s rumor that eagle owls have arrived in Yorkshire and eat birds of prey like me as part of their diet. Such is the life of a merlin, or pigeon hawk.