Bird Identification – Merlin

The “Pigeon Hawk” or Merlin

Introduction: It was the early 1950’s when I became familiar with Redhouse Wood near Moor Monkton, York. I know the period because I was still collecting birds’ eggs and trading them at primary school. The hobby was outlawed in Britain through the 1954 Protection of Birds Act. I still took moorhen and lapwing eggs from nests that no one knew about, and ate them for breakfast.

United States Regulations: the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act made it illegal in the United States to collect or have in your possession native birds, bird feathers, or wild birds’ eggs. Prior to the Act, stuffed birds adorned hats, and some native birds, like Waxwings, were served in restaurants. Egg collecting was a popular hobby. Today, even destroying habitat while a protected bird is nesting can result in prosecution.  A few bird species are excluded, such as house sparrow, European starling, domestic pigeon, and Canada Geese.

The Redhouse Estate: I was always told to stay away. There were stories of ghosts, being shot at by the gamekeeper, or assaulted by the school residents at Redhouse. The estate was mentioned in the Domesday Book and passed to the Slingsbys family during the 1500s. They were of Catholic persuasion and hosted Charles 1st on his way to Scotland in 1633. It was only eleven years later, on July 2nd 1644, and about three miles away, when the Royalists and Parliamentarians fought the Battle of Marston Moor, and Oliver Cromwell’s side won.

The “Pigeon Hawk”:Would you like a Merlin egg”? he asked me one day at school. He was proud that he had found a Merlin nest and obviously had taken several eggs. I accepted the rusty brown egg in exchange for eggs from two other bird species. I never saw the Merlin bird, and trusted that what I was told was true. Today the species is on the British endangered “red list” of birds, one of 67 species that are at risk.

It is a beautiful, compact, fast flying hawk, and Britain’s smallest bird of prey. It flies with quick wing beats and occasional glides, and may spend long periods perched, waiting to spot its next meal. In flight, you will see its long, black-striped, square-cut tail. Today there are around 900 to 1,500 breeding pairs in the UK.

Identification: the male Merlin has slate or blue-grey feathered back and streaked rufous under parts. The female has a dark brown back.  If its nesting and you get too close, you may hear its warning “laughing” call. Confusion with the Kestrel is possible, although the latter has chestnut upper parts, and unique with its hovering behavior when hunting. The Merlin species in the United States is generally small, dark, and streaky, and typically is a visitor, breeding further north in Canada.

Habitat:  the Merlin prefers open conifer woodland, grassland and heath. It preys on small birds, taken in flight, and does not build its own nest, preferring to take over old nests built by crows, magpies, and other raptors. “Pigeon hawk” is its nickname because the Merlin looks pigeon-like in flight, and not because pigeon is its preferred prey.

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