ON MERLINS, MYSTERIES, AND FAITH
From her high perch, the solitary raptor scans the open fields.
She suddenly takes flight, bursting into high speed as she pursues her prey.
Her sharp talons snatch songbirds or insects midflight; her hooked beak tears into the still-moving victim.
This raptor is an efficient hunter.
Is she an eagle? A hawk? A kite?
This predator is a merlin.
Today we associate the name “merlin” with wizardry. Mysticism. After all, the Merlin of Arthurian legend was an important literary figure in the Middle Ages.
But merlins – Falco columbarius, the birds of prey -- have long been regarded as a sign of status among the nobility. Catherine the Great and Mary Queen of Scots used these raptors for sport. The birds were trained to hunt Skylarks in ringing flights, which truly is spectacular to observe.
Falconers in North America and Europe still hunt with merlins.
Since merlins are falcons, they have similar adaptations and appearances to American kestrels. At first glance, you may confuse the two species. Careful observation shows that merlins are slightly larger and bulkier than their close cousins. The face of the merlin is also not as strongly patterned as most other falcons, especially when you compare the two dark malar (moustachial) stripes and black eyespots on the nape of the kestrel.
Merlins can be found across North America, Europe, and across northern China. In the winter, they migrate as far as India, northern Africa, and South America.
They are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (“MBTA”). The MBTA prohibits the take (including killing, capturing, selling, trading, and transport) of protected migratory bird species without prior authorization from the Department of Interior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The MBTA fulfills several international wildlife obligations that the United States has with other countries.
Merlin populations were declining at one time due to the widespread use of the toxic insecticide Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (“DDT”). DDT interfered with the deposition of calcium on eggshells; raptors such as merlins would unwittingly crush their eggs when they laid on their nests. Since DDT was banned in North America in 1972, they are becoming quite common in cities and northern prairies. Their population is considered stable, or increasing. We might go so far as to say it’s a magical comeback.
Watching the behavior of animals in their natural habitat can be meditative, or even spiritual, as if we are connected to something we cannot easily describe. Henry David Thoreau, a naturalist, poet, and philosopher once wrote the following account of a merlin on Walden Pond:
The Merlin it seemed to me it might be called: but I care not for its name. It was the most ethereal flight I had ever witnessed. It did not simply flutter like a butterfly, nor soar like the larger hawks, but it sported with proud reliance in the fields of air; mounting again and again with its strange chuckle, it repeated its free and beautiful fall, turning over and over like a kite, and then recovering from its lofty tumbling, as if it had never set its foot on terra firma. It appeared to have no companion in the universe -- sporting there alone -- and to need none but the morning and the ether with which it played. It was not lonely, but made all the earth lonely beneath it. Where was the parent which hatched it, its kindred, and its father in the heavens? The tenant of the air, it seemed related to the earth but by an egg hatched some time in the crevice of a crag; -- or was its native nest made in the angle of a cloud, woven of the rainbow's trimmings and the sunset sky, and lined with some soft midsummer haze caught up from earth? Its eyry now some cliffy cloud.