Prairie Merlin – The return of the wild folk

Prairie Merlin surveying its territory.

Written by Chic Country Life

I'm a mom of two wonderful boys, wife, and occasionally, an effective tamer of our crazy dog and insane cat. I've always been a country girl at heart and love being a rural mom. Whether it's decorating, tending our gardens, cooking, writing, or rushing off to a hockey rink, I am on it, along with the other million things that always seem to need to be done. It isn't always easy but it's always interesting around here.

May 20, 2020

“At last came the golden month of the wild folk– honey-sweet May, when the birds come back, and the flowers come out, and the air is full of the sunrise scents and songs of the dawning year.”

― Samuel Scoville Jr., Wild Folk

In the Northern Hemisphere, the vernal equinox marks the official start of spring; however, in Manitoba, March usually still feels more like winter. The ground is often snow-covered, and a snowstorm or two is still a real possibility. Despite this, our spirits lift with the growing daylight as other harbingers of spring arrive.

Here, it doesn’t really begin to feel like spring until May. The sun is noticeably warmer, and while it can still be chilly other days feel like summer. By this time, plants and trees are showing signs of new life, you can hear insects buzzing about, and several migratory birds begin to move through our yard in large flocks. Some of our hardier snowbirds, like the Black-Eyed Junco, are the first to return coming as early as March. It isn’t until May, though, that we wake up to a symphony of twitters, chirps and songs. Seeing the birds arrive in droves by species is always a thrilling sight. This return of the wild folk marks the true onset of spring for me.

There is one call that I am always listening for – a shrill kree-kree-kree-kree. These distinctive cries announce the arrival of a pair of Prairie Merlins (Falco columbarius richardsonii) that have returned to roost on our property for over a decade. (To be accurate, while Merlins do return to the same nesting site year after year, and are monogamous for the season, they often find new mates the following year. I choose to believe that it’s the same pair or their offspring that return to us every year.)

Prairie Merlin Cochrane, AB. Photo by Just a Prairie Boy
Prairie Merlins, are one of three subspecies found in North America. They are compact, and at nine to 12 inches long, they are only slightly larger than American Kestrels. Merlins, however, can weigh twice as much as Kestrals due to their more muscular build. Powerful, agile and quick, they are fierce hunters and a gorgeous bird of prey.
Easily identified, this subspecies has distinct, boldly black banded tails with a prominent black band and a thin white tip at the end. Merlins have long, heavily streaked wings and underbellies, creating a distinct view as they streak by overhead. The adult male is painted a bluish-grey while females and juveniles tend to be coloured a more sedate brown. Both sexes have less strongly patterned faces in comparison to other falcons with dark eyes and beaks. They have a yellow cere on the top of their beak and yellow feet with black claws.

At the end of our driveway, a tall cottonwood provides ideal views of both our property and the farmer’s field across the highway. This is our Merlin’s favourite perch for hunting or sharing a meal. These small falcons are fierce hunters. Their sharply pointed wings beat quickly allowing them to reach speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. I’ve watched these skillful birds snatch small songbirds on the wing attacking from the side or giving chase until they tire. Typically, Merlins feed on local species of small birds, rounding out their diet with larger insects, small mammals or reptiles when needed. Not limited by size, these birds can capture larger birds like flickers or pigeons.

Although these small falcons have begun to adapt to life in cities, most prefer forested areas along rivers (this describes our property to a tee). Merlin numbers are stable and have recovered after a loss due to DDT pesticide use in the 1960s. They are relatively common in southern Canada in the Prairies, although they can be difficult to detect.

Rather than build, they appropriate nests previously made by other raptors or corvids preferring those with a good view of their surroundings. Avid territory defenders, our pair, can be seen and heard as they patrol our property. Most of the larger raptors and owls tend to leave these aggressive falcons alone. Merlins, readily vexed, seem to take pleasure in chasing raptors and other birds much more substantial than themselves. In the morning, I am often woken by them arguing with a nearby nesting raven pair, although they seem to tolerate each other most of the time.

The female lays four or five eggs and will incubate them for 28 to 32 days. She remains with her young most of the time, brooding them when they are small while the male supplies food for the family. The youngsters take their first flight when they are around 30 days old, and the family becomes quite vocal. As they mature, it is interesting to observe them learning to hunt. The juveniles work as a team with their parents; one flushes a group of birds from our chokecherry bushes while the others snatch up an easy meal.

I adore watching our Merlins, and it is sad to see them leave as they migrate to warmer temps in the United States or South America in the fall.

Does anyone else have Merlins? What have you noticed about them?

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Merlin with falconry gear. Pixabay
Interesting fact: Catherine the Great and Mary Queen of Scots, among other medieval noblewomen, used Merlins, often called “lady hawks” for sport hunting Skylarks. Falconers still work with Merlins today.

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