― Samuel Scoville Jr., Wild Folk
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.)
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.
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?