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Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Merlins and grackles both deserve appreciation

The grackle is a gregarious and conspicuous species, while the merlin is much more shy.

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Illustration by Mike Jacobs
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Hard as I try to appreciate every bird I see, I have to admit that some are easier to appreciate than others. The case in point: Merlins and grackles.

While both are birds, these species have little else in common, except for a purplish sheen, obvious in the grackle and subtle in the merlin. The grackle is a gregarious and conspicuous species. Some would call it obnoxious, but I withhold judgment in deference to its status as a bird species – and an interesting one. The merlin is likewise fascinating, but it is a much more shy bird than the grackle.

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Both grackles and merlins seem to be increasing in our area, which increases my regard for the merlin and diminishes my appreciation of the grackle. This is perverse in a way, since both species are a nuisance to other species. Grackles are notorious nest robbers. Merlins are avian predators. They eat smaller birds.
For years, the merlin was commonly known as “pigeon hawk,” and that was the term used in the field guides of my childhood. That’s not because merlins eat pigeons, but because they are about the same size as pigeons, and a merlin in flight might be mistaken for a pigeon.

A closer look will disabuse an observer of that notion. The merlin is a faster, bolder flier. So fast, in fact, that it often doesn’t offer an observer a second chance. The bird is gone before it’s possible to make a positive identification. One helpful hint, however, is that merlins are usually seen alone while pigeons often gang up, often appearing in groups of a half dozen or so and sometimes in immense swarms, though these are more likely in urban areas than in open country.

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Merlins don’t discriminate as to habitat. They are interested in food. As a result, the number of merlins has been growing in mid-continent cities. They’ve become regular enough that they’ve spilled into the countryside. At least twice in the past decade, merlins have nested within a mile of our place west of Gilby, N.D., about a half hour’s drive northwest of Grand Forks.

Wheatfield Township is a big open, flat space but with one important topographical feature. The Campbell Beach, once the western shore of Lake Agassiz, runs diagonally through the township from northwest to southeast, interrupting what is otherwise an expanse of tilled fields.

A second feature of the township are shelterbelts of various ages and, in some places – including the property that we own – volunteer bushes of various kinds. These the merlin likes. The shelterbelts provide nesting sites, and the patches of plum and chokecherry bushes provide cover for their prey.

The merlin is the third of three falcon species that nest in our area. Nesting peregrines have become celebrities. They are at home on the water tower on UND’s campus. When I want to see a peregrine falcon, once among the most endangered of North American birds, I head north on Columbia Road and look left at the top of the overpass.

The merlin is a smaller bird than the peregrine, and its hunting methods are a little less dramatic. The peregrine is a stoop hunter known for high speed dives on vulnerable prey, including ducks, a trait that earned it the name “duck hawk” in those older field guides. The Grand Forks peregrines go in for smaller prey. Tim Driscoll’s years-long study of local peregrines shows they have a taste for black-billed cuckoos, which are about the size of robins.

The merlin is a chase and pounce hunter whose pursuits are often not far above the ground. I’ve watched it pursue horned larks, for example, and once an upland sandpiper, which proved too large for the merlin to handle.

The third nesting falcon – and the most common – is the American kestrel, once known as the sparrow hawk, although its favorite foods are insects and small mammals, which it catches by dropping from a hovering position about a telephone-pole’s height above ground. In fact, kestrels are often seen perched atop such poles.

Any of these are easy to appreciate for their swiftness and their grace in flight, if not for their dietary habits. The grackle, on the other hand, is a noisy bird that often occurs in large flocks. This is typical of its close relatives in the bird world, the blackbirds.

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Grackles are the largest of local blackbird species (excepting the crows and ravens, of course, but these are not members of the blackbird family, but rather corvids, more closely related to magpies and blue jays than to grackles). They earn appreciation for a couple of reasons. First, they are quite beautiful. In good light, they display an iridescent sheen. Second, they are self-aware, even pompous in appearance. They neither hop nor walk about; instead, they strut.

Unlike the merlin, a grackle is not wary. Rather than an occasional glimpse, they’re likely to put on a show.

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Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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Mike Jacobs


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