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Tracking Manitoba's Merlins

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Wildlife biologist Dr. Merlin Shoesmith has established MerlinWatch Manitoba to track the distribution and abundance of the Merlin (inset) throughout Manitoba.

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Wildlife biologist Dr. Merlin Shoesmith has established MerlinWatch Manitoba to track the distribution and abundance of the Merlin (inset) throughout Manitoba. Photo Store

Wildlife biologist Dr. Merlin Shoesmith stresses that his keen interest in Merlins (Falco columbarius) does not have anything to do with the two having the same name — at least not much.

It’s just coincidental.

Shoesmith, a resident of Transcona, has established MerlinWatch Manitoba, an interactive website intended to monitor the distribution and population of the Merlin throughout Manitoba.
This website will also provide an overview of the status of the small bird predator and its role in the ecosystem and the biologically diverse world it lives in, he said.

"I’ve had an interest in amateur bird watching throughout my career," said Shoesmith, a retired assistant deputy minister of Manitoba Conservation.

"In retirement, I became quite curious in the frequencies with which I was seeing Merlins in Transcona. So, I tried to pin down the number of Merlins nesting in the area during my recreational bike rides in the neighbourhood."

Then, his innate curiosity as a biologist took over.

"I decided to do a survey of these raptors and compare it to the historical nest locations that were recorded in the 1990s by a series of summer students associated with the Manitoba Wildlife Branch (of Manitoba Conservation)," said Shoesmith.

He observed that the Merlin, a small- to medium-sized falcon that resembles the domestic pigeon in size and flight style, is a common species although it has been in trouble in the past.
Living near the top of its food web, the Merlin, which is a good bioindicator species (whose presence or absence tells us about the health of a habitat), has suffered through nearly 30 years of man’s too-frequent use of persistent organochlorine compounds beginning in the 1940s and lasting well into the 1960s.

"While these environmental threats have now gone away and its biological status is presently secure, nesting densities and the breeding success of the Merlin remain poorly known," Shoesmith said.

An uncommon breeder throughout Manitoba, this sleek bodied raptor re-established in Brandon in the 1960s and in Winnipeg in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s rare in winter but may be found in Winnipeg, Brandon, and the extreme south of the province.

In addition, Shoesmith said the public perception of this predator remains largely negative because its main food items are songbirds that people prefer to be alive in their backyards, and not as a carcass in the talons of a Merlin.

Members of the public are invited to track the bird, which will most commonly appear from March to October. Just write down the date, time, and location, and report the bird’s behaviour. Email that information to merlinwatch2@gmail.com and a member of the organization will follow up with you.

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