Merlin the mighty sparrow slayer

Despite my intentions to post more spiders today, I once again interrupt my plans to celebrate a bit of exciting happenstance…

Yesterday I spent the cold first Saturday of December curled up in bed with a fever and chills and a general malaise.  How marvelous for me.  But anyway…

While lying under heavy covers wishing I could sleep away the hours I otherwise would spend tossing and turning, from the patio came a rather morbid sound, something akin to an abrupt—no, more like an interrupted peep-cum-scream.  The noise smelled of death.  Immediately on the heels of that brief and strange sound came a thud against the patio fence.  Sick or not, I had to take a look.

After gently relocating several cats, I squirmed from beneath the covers and stumbled to the patio door.  Gently and slowly, I moved the blinds.  Two steps away from where I stood was a merlin (Falco columbarius) with a still-writhing male house sparrow clutched in its talons.  The falcon happened to be looking right at me, so of course moving the blinds and sticking my big ol’ eyeball in the window sent it into full escape mode.

It didn’t go far, though.  Wingtips sharp like blades cut through the bright winter sky and carried the predator-and-prey combo to a tree perhaps 40 yards/meters away.  It alighted in the treetop and proceeded to dine.  Meanwhile, I ran to grab the camera.

I had no intention of going after it for close photos.  Strong wind and cool temperatures made me shun the outdoors lest I get worse, so instead I cracked open the bedroom door and stuck the lens through the opening.  Even from that distance, I could see the sparrow had stopped moving—and the merlin was spitting out a mouthful of feathers.  No time or interest in grabbing the polarizing filter, I instead fiddled a bit with exposure and began shooting.

A merlin (Falco columbarius) perched in a tree with a male house sparrow clutched in its talons (2009_12_05_043552)

The tuft of feathers already had fallen, but the predator continued working unwanted debris from its mouth.  A few flicks of the tongue and another feather popped out.  It continued to glance around as it cleared its beak.

A merlin (Falco columbarius) perched in a tree with a male house sparrow clutched in its talons (2009_12_05_043563)

All of the feathers gone, the merlin paused.  It almost seemed to look at me.  No one else was in the area, at least that I could see, yet the distance between us seemed to negate the possibility that it was staring at me.  Or had it heard the door, perhaps the shutter on the camera, or both?  In any case, it then leaned down to take another bite.

A merlin (Falco columbarius) eating a male house sparrow (2009_12_05_043585)

This time when it lifted its head, I could plainly make out a bit of sparrow meat stuck to the merlin’s bill.

A merlin (Falco columbarius) perched in a tree with a male house sparrow clutched in its talons (2009_12_05_043592)

It was only then that I became starkly aware of the bird’s size compared to the house sparrow.  Merlins by no stretch of the imagination are large falcons.  Yet despite their small size, they are aggressive hunters and females are known to take larger prey such as doves.

Which made me think of yet another aspect of this bird: its plumage indicated it was either a female or a juvenile of the boreal subspecies (Falco columbarius columbarius).  By sight alone, I doubt anyone can tell the difference between an adult female and a juvenile of any sex.  But the prey offered the one clue that the plumage could not: a female hunting at White Rock Lake would have her pick of mourning doves, white-winged doves, rock doves and a plethora of larger birds, hence this one taking a house sparrow likely was a juvenile male.

Though the bird remained in the treetop enjoying its catch, the cold wind forced me to give up this long-distance photo shoot in favor of closing the door and climbing back into bed.  Even so, visions danced in my head of that merlin perched on the patio fence with its meal, the two of them no more than a few steps away.  I felt good about getting at least a few photos to document the encounter but felt even better about having seen them so close that I could have counted the feathers on the predator’s chin.

— — — — — — — — — —

And an update as of this morning: The merlin is still here.  I heard a great cacophony of house sparrow panic just now and rushed to the patio.  Sure enough, the merlin had another sparrow pinned to the ground.  Meanwhile, the rest of the sparrow population scattered in all directions.  The falcon secured the sparrow in its talons and vanished into the cloudy sky.

If it hangs around a tad longer, I should be able to get some better photos of it.  Here’s me keeping my fingers crossed…

6 thoughts on “Merlin the mighty sparrow slayer”

  1. Sorry you’ve been feeling under the weather, but how fortunate for us that you happened to be right there when the merlin struck. Beautiful bird, beautiful shots — thanks.

    Did the kids show any interest or did they just want you to return your extra-warm self to the bed so they could snuggle?

    1. Thank you, Swampy! I’m feeling better today, though not 100% quite yet. Hopefully I beat this before it settled in. More sleep, more clear fluids, no spending time outside in the damp and cool weather.

      The Kids did know something was up, but only two of them moved to investigate. The sound wasn’t terribly loud and wasn’t exactly identifiable, so as felines are wont to do, most of them remained in bed where it was warm and cozy. If the world was going to end, they figured, at least they’d die happy.

    1. Thank you, Jain! I appreciate it. I’d never seen a merlin in Dallas, though I’d seen them way up north. This was a real treat even if it meant getting out of bed long enough to snap some photos. (Mind you, it was right back to bed afterward. That helped as I’m feeling better today.)

  2. Super shots of the Merlin dining on House Sparrow Jason! The Merlin detail is great. That second shot where he looks as if he could be giving you the side glance is beautiful.

    I was privileged to spot a Merlin on my Burrowing Owl habitat search last weekend in Chico. What an absolutely efficient raptor is he. Speedy, direct flight and amazing maneuverability.

    1. Thanks, Larry! I’m especially glad you like them given I was ill at the time and quite unwilling to even step outside to take pictures. Sometimes nature cooperates–and for that I’m eternally grateful.

      And you’re quite right: They’re fast, efficient, maneuverable falcons. Other than peregrines, I don’t think I know of a more aggressive and impressive in-flight hunter.

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