Merlin. It’s a word with three meanings. We either think of a fabulous warlock, determined to fulfil his never ending quest of protecting King Arthur, an aerodynamic flashy engine, or a small, yet speedy and majestic bird of prey. Now I don’t wish to disappoint (depending on your opinion), but in this article I am going to focus on the bird. I could write about Merlin and Arthur, but sadly I don’t think it’s applicable for this site. Or I could write about the engine, but if i’m honest that would be nothing less than a shambles and rather embarrassing. Cue the term ‘stick to what you know’.
So! The merlin. The merlin is our smallest bird of prey (not much bigger than a blackbird), so small in fact, that in the past in the Book of St. Albans, they were deemed as the ‘bird for a lady’, when considering falconry. Obviously, because we ladies are far too weak for anything larger. Make of that what you will. But what he lacks in size he does make up for in bulk, making him a stocky little bird. When our sea eagles and golden eagles are playing basketball or rowing, our merlin would be our weight lifter (no shame in that!) And as a small bird it would not be surprising for many of us to think there is little threat to them. They feed on small birds such as meadow pipits and unlike their larger cousins, they could not be considered a threat to grouse, livestock or people (as so many birds of prey are!). But once again we find ourself coming up against a similar problem. There are not many of them. They are not in dire straits, we have around 900-1500 breeding pairs, but we could have more. I for one have never seen a merlin and it has become a mission of mine to do so.
The merlin can be easily confused with the kestrel (they are highly similar), but he is more compact, with faster wingbeats, and in general has darker coloration. An easy thing to search for is the more brown red back of the kestrel and the bluey brown back and head of the merlin. So, if you’re like me and want to see this bird, or you have seen him already but are greedy enough to want to do so again, the best time to do so is winter. Our populations of the merlin increase over winter when migrants from Iceland come is search of warmer climates (and they have to settle for the UK).
Like so many of our birds of prey, during the 20th century, the population of this little bird crashed dramatically. Habitat destruction and excessive pesticide use were his downfall, so much so that he had red status in the UK. The main threat however, relates to habitat loss. The merlin likes tall heather to nest in and he therefore finds himself at risk from over management through burn practices carried out on heather moorland (once again for grouse). However, this determined little bird has been making a slow comeback. Since 2002 he has been removed from the red status and moved to amber. Better. But he’s not out of the woods yet.
In order for us to see more of this dynamic little bird we need to ensure that they have plenty of habitat to survive in. The best way to do this is to raise awareness and work with farmers and landowners to keep landscapes suitable for our wildlife.
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