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 which imposed unlimited fines and/or six months imprisonment per egg, if you were found in possession of a bird’s egg. I still took moorhen and lapwing eggs from nests that no one knew about, and ate them for breakfast. There were special ways to tell if incubation had begun and the eggs were no longer edible. Did the egg sink or float; were the eggs all pointed into the center of the nest?

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 told always to stay away. There were stories of ghosts, being shot at by the gamekeeper, or attacked by the young gentlemen that attended the school at Redhouse. A visit to the vicar’s house along the way was allowed, but no further. Maybe the warnings had their roots in religious conflict. 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. Whatever the reason, I was threatened with dreadful consequences if I disobeyed, and was told never to visit the place. Fortunately I knew the son of one of the workers, and we attended school together.

The “Pigeon Hawk”:Would you like a Merlin egg”? he asked me one day. He was proud that he had found a Merlin nest in Redhouse Wood and obviously had taken several eggs. It was the wrong thing to do, but I accepted his generosity, and took the rusty brown egg. I don’t recall what I traded but know that I gained the better part of the deal. 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 beautifully compact and fast flying hawk, and Britain’s smallest bird of prey. It flies powerfully, with quick wing beats and occasional glides. It also will 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.

Folklore: it was very much a noblewoman’s hawk in mediaeval times, used to hunt skylarks. Name originates from old French meaning falcon. The Arthurian Wizard legend is unrelated. That name derives from the Welsh, Myrddin Wyllt, a mediaeval figure in Welsh legend who was both prophet and madman. Wizards from Harry Potter are also unrelated to Falco columbarius.

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