The merlin: a bold — even indomitable — bird along the Salish Sea - Salish Current
March 6, 2024
The merlin: a bold — even indomitable — bird along the Salish Sea
Tony Angell

The spirited merlin — a small falcon sharing the Salish Sea landscape — may capture prey nearly as large as itself. (© Tony Angell)

March 6, 2024
The merlin: a bold — even indomitable — bird along the Salish Sea
Tony Angell

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The merlin

The sculpture pictured is of a merlin, a small but spirited falcon that occupies the slopes and near shores along the Salish Sea. 

In fall and winter we often see them atop the bare limbs of trees bordering the fields and sloughs. If we are lucky we might catch them flying at top speed pursuing shore birds across an open field. They share the landscape with peregrine falcons, harriers, red-tailed and rough-legged hawks, eagles and ravens. Unlike kestrels on the phone lines at roadside seeking insects and voles, the bold merlins will capture prey nearly as large as themselves. 

These species have adapted to suburban landscapes and have expanded their ranges to include our coastal communities. Merlins are prone to take over the abandoned nests of crows to brood their eggs and raise their young. Should crows object, the determined personalities of a pair of nest-defending merlins will succeed in driving off the much larger crow. 

I once watched a merlin pitch out from Queen Anne Hill to fly toward the Seattle cityscape. Suddenly, from its elevation of several hundred feet above Lake Union, it closed its wings to stoop at a sharp angle to frighten and scatter a half-dozen crows that were on the ground bathing in a roadside puddle. I imagined there might have been a sense of satisfaction felt by the merlin to perhaps even an old score when the crows had harassed the falcons.

As with increasing numbers of sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, merlins have benefited by keeping company with a public that provides bird feeders at their homes. Songbirds that feed throughout the winter on sunflower seeds and suet and nurture their young on the same fare increase in numbers. In turn, their increase as prey for the hawks and merlins will nurture their families and assure their presence in our communities.

The bronze sculpture, Inodomitable

Many years ago, a wounded falcon was brought to me for possible rehabilitation back to the wild. On examination, I discovered it had been shot. The wrist of the wing had been severed and the bird, once a master of the skies, would never fly again.

This was a female merlin, not much larger than a robin, but powerfully built. From the moment I had her perch on my gloved hand, she glared at me with intense defiance, an expression she would frequently direct my way over the many years she remained in my care. 

She would never be subdued, she was indomitable

I learned much from this bird that I would include in my writing, drawing and sculpture. Her sleek form, attentive eyes that missed nothing and habits of personal care that kept her plumage clean and full of subtle colors and engaging patterns have remained in my memory for decades. 

I also concluded that because of the grievous wound inflicted upon her, I and for that matter all humans were in this bird’s mind, villainous. When I approached her, even when feeding her, I would be greeted with a loud staccato of scolding. There were rare occasions however, when she would accept my company. Should I sit quietly nearby to sketch her beauty, her expression changed and she seemed at peace and even expressing some interest in what I was doing.

— Contributed by Tony Angell

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