Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Backyard bullies, BLOODSHED
Ruthless, violent merlins launch gory enterprise from neighbours' roof
What's up at the neighbours' place?
There's a kerfuffle on their roof, with some unfamiliar feathered friends. Not like the pair of lovesick ducks my husband and I played landlords to this spring. We enjoyed every minute of their stay, too.
Well, almost. We could have lived without the female's pasty white splatters on the poop deck, but when the neighbourhood fox ate all 11 of Mam'selle Mallard's eggs, we forgave her inappropriate bathroom behaviour. We welcomed the fact that she and her mate continued to rendezvous in our swimming pool even after they'd chosen someone else's property as a safer replacement nesting site. We never did figure out where. Nor did we guess exactly who this lucky neighbour might be. But that's another story.
What I do know for sure is that, while the above-mentioned duckumentary was playing out over here, the house directly behind ours was being taken over by a gang of feathered fiends the likes of which Tony and I have never seen before. Housing a couple of ducks is one thing; we'll do it again gladly. But the folks behind us?
Well now, they ought to call the Residential Tenancies Branch. No one in our fair city should be forced to turn over their entire housetop to a couple of wild-winged warriors like that. Under siege -- the whole roof.
It's a fine, brown-shingled roof, the biggest and best around these parts; its peak is much higher than any other, and that's what makes it so attractive. For 27 years, birds of all species have managed to share it in a spirit of congeniality. Song sparrows held regular, congregational meetings up there; romantically inclined Canada geese wound their necks around each other and honked melodious love notes up there; gentle doves mourned, cooed and serenaded us from up there; crows, robins, jays, even canaries and finches, surveyed and greeted their vast kingdoms from up there. Not anymore.
There's no cawing, no cheeriup-cheerioing, no twittering, tweeting or warbling going on in our backyard, or in the neighbours' yard, or in the yards surrounding theirs -- not since those blasted raptors blew into town.
But there is a lot of screeching.
One look through my trusty binoculars and it didn't take long to determine who the noisy intruders were and what they were up to. Merlins, often called pigeon hawks (Falco columbarius) because they are about the same size as pigeons and resemble them in flight, are small, compact birds of prey, 25 to 33 centimetres long with a wingspan of 60 to 68 centimetres.
They have large heads, heavy shoulders, slate-blue upper parts in mature males, brown upper parts in immature males and females, with streaks of buff and dark brown on breast and belly, dark bands on the buff-coloured tail. Legs and feet are yellow; talons are black. Females are slightly larger and heavier than males, and though the male does most of the hunting, both sexes are equally aggressive and a threat to the songbirds we humans have come to appreciate and love.
I'm no authority on medieval magicians or on King Arthur and his famed buddies, but the name merlin was a dead giveaway. Whenever there's an unsuspecting bird in the air, we hear a kee, kee, kee, a whoosh and a swoop. Now you see it; now you don't.
And it's not only our feathered friends that keep vanishing before our very eyes. Squirrels, rabbits, mice (not that I care) and other furry critters have stopped frequenting the district. Considering they've all had the good sense to run for their lives, Tony and I marvel at how nonchalantly our spring tenants swam and waddled and preened while the carnage went on around them day by disastrous day.
Come to think of it, the mallards returned recently to grab a leisurely bite in our front-yard ditch, where they nibbled on mosquito larvae and other delicacies for several hours, apparently unfazed by the incessant shrieking of the hungry hawks overhead. (Perhaps some ancient, guilt-ridden merlin swore on his mother's grave to do no harm to ducks. Or some magical mallard cast a spell on hawks of the merlin ilk, causing them to abstain from duck meat, no matter how delectable.) Whatever.
The sad truth is that, whether or not our neighbours are aware of these developments, their rooftop is now alien-occupied territory, staked out by the merlin clan as its primary mating station, preening post, open-air outhouse and lookout tower.
To top it off, these nasties have established their home base as a no-fly zone.
Admittedly, some birds do get past them. The other morning, Tony looked on as, after two attempts to knock a sassy crow out of the air, the male merlin sensed the futility of his efforts and flew off to target a weaker, less agile victim.
Yet, judging by the ever-increasing number and variety of heads, feathers and bird bits we've collected in our yard alone, we deem that crow fortunate to have escaped the powerful, scythe-like talons and razor-sharp beak of its assailant. Merlins decapitate and pluck their prey before eating, a rather disgusting but most necessary habit, I can assure you. Would you swallow feathers?
Not wanting to waste my new-found knowledge about this fascinating bird species, I sent my sisters (also birdbrains) a video clip of one of the merlins plucking feathers and pulling at the flesh of its freshly caught prey. I hoped they would not think my correspondence too gruesome. One sister responded quickly with a request, "Maybe you could send a hawk over here to eat all the stupid grackles."
Another of my sisters seconded the motion. Grackles are so abundant in their end of town that residents would go to any lengths to rid themselves of the squawking pests. I'm sure they'd be grateful if we trapped and released the merlins near my sisters' homes. Tony aims to please, but will not oblige. We've got bird issues of our own.
So for the time being, he'll continue to clean out the eavestroughs, the downspouts, the birdbath, the garden, whichever location serves as a dumping ground for the next stray head or body part.
As for me, I bought myself a new camera and plan to spend the next few days chasing, snapping and clicking at the merlins -- and at any songbirds brave enough to come out of hiding.
As I'm typing this sentence, a solitary warbler has left her sanctuary in the tall blue spruce beside the pool shed. She has perched herself way up on the tip of the tree's top branch. For a minute or two she sings her heart out, then flies away as fast as she can. She'll be safe for a while. The merlins must be tending to their young somewhere nearby and are not actively seeking food at the moment.
When they return, I'll be ready to catch them in whatever live performance they are willing to put on in my presence. I've got a front-row seat.
The neighbours can't see what I see: what's going on directly above their heads. And I won't tell them just yet, but I do worry that they may be offended by my frequent use of field glasses aimed in their direction. And by my obsessive picture-taking. I'm harmless, really -- no danger to them, their guests or their famous roof.
It's served as a beloved landmark in birdville for a long time. If only they knew.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 7, 2012 j3
(1 of 24 articles for this month)05/25/2013 1:00 AM 0