A flock of 20 cedar waxwings rises from a neighborhood tree and speeds off in a tight flock with typical waxwing urgency. Who knew the hunt for crab apples and madrone berries required such determination.
Suddenly, the flock turns sharply, and a dark blur blows by the fast-moving group nearly making good on its attack. This time it was a miss. The fast, compact flock makes it difficult for the merlin to single out an individual for capture. Having lost the element of surprise, the small falcon powers off across the valley in search of a less wary flock.
Merlins breed in the north woods of Canada and Alaska and spread south across North and Central America in winter. Small numbers remain in the valley until spring. They are similar in size to the familiar American kestrel. Both are barely larger than a robin and can be a challenge to distinguish at a distance. Up close, kestrels are colorful, with reds, oranges and various bold black marks. Males have distinctive bright, bluish-gray wings. Merlins, in contrast, are dull with a gray back and narrow white bars on the tail.
Kestrels are patient hunters waiting on power lines for grasshoppers, mice and lizards to venture into the open before pouncing. At times they hover over fields in search of prey. Their relatively long wings and tail help with hovering but limit their ability to fly fast.
There is nothing patient or slow about a merlin. They are intense. Some birders refer to them as “thugs” and “bullies” for their attitude and habit of plucking other birds out of the air. The relatively short wings allow a merlin to accelerate from zero to full speed in a seeming heartbeat, and full speed can be impressive. They use their superior flight capabilities to outrun and out-maneuver their prey in flight, which even includes swallows and swifts, and one of their favorites is the cedar waxwing.
Maturing madrone berries in early October herald the arrival of flocks of cedar waxwings and the attendant merlins. Waxwings are one of the most distinctive birds to visit the valley, and some say they are one of the most beautiful. The soft, brown-colored body is accented by a black mask, a crest, and yellow-tipped tail. Small, waxy, red-tipped feathers in the wing give the bird its name.
However, you don’t need to see these field marks to identify this bird in flight. A tightly packed flock of sparrow-sized birds in a hurry is the hallmark of the waxwing. They never seem to relax. This contrasts with the languid flight of the robin flocks that arrive about the same time. Robins tend to fly higher, widely dispersed and at a deliberate pace.
In the age-old battle between predator and prey, adaptations for survival continue to be refined in both. Considering the close association between merlins and waxwings, I suspect the flight behavior of waxwings has developed, at least in part, as a defense against merlin predation. Few other birds of prey can seriously threaten waxwings on the wing.
Incidentally, the town of Merlin was named for this bird of prey and not the magician.
— Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.