For the Birds Radio Program: Merlins at the School Bus Stop

Original Air Date: May 5, 1995

Today Laura Erickson talks about some scandalous X-rated activities going on right at a school bus stop. 3:40

Audio missing


Motherhood has many joys, most of them ephemeral. My babies and toddlers are gone forever, and now two-thirds of my children are way too old to want their mom walking with them to school. Fortunately, at least for the next couple of months, I still have one third-grader, and he still likes company on his way to the school bus stop. Sometimes we tell funny stories as we walk, sometimes he tells me about his problems or about interesting things happening at school, sometimes he gives me all the details in the latest Star Wars book he’s reading, and sometimes we just walk together in companionable silence. No matter, our walks always make a pleasant and lovely way to start the day.

Walking Tommy has had an added, unexpected bonus—those walks together have given me a chance to add new birds to my neighborhood list and my year list. The only cardinal I’ve ever seen on Peabody Street sang for a few moments on a neighbor’s tree while Tommy and I walked past. I heard my first Yellow-rumped Warbler of the season both last year and this walking with Tommy. And last week we discovered a Merlin not far from the bus stop. When we moved to Duluth 14 years ago, Merlins were still rare, and in a given year I was lucky to see more than a handful of migrants along the shoreline and from Hawk Ridge. Now they nest in many towns and even cities along the Lake Superior shoreline, and many birders are actually starting to say, “Oh, that’s just another Merlin.”

Merlins are conspicuous and noisy by any standards, and by normal hawk standards they’re bizarrely loud, like hyperactive Killdeer. You’d think bird-hunting falcons would need at least some element of surprise to successfully take prey, but somehow Merlins stay plump and satisfied even with their habit of yelling their heads off while hunting.

Merlins don’t build their own nests, but take over old crow nests way up high in spruces. While courting, they’re especially noisy. One, presumably the female, perches at the tip of the nest tree while the other, presumably the male, flies at top speed in wild circles around her. In this courtship flight, his wing beat is much more rapid and shallow than his normal hunting flight, and is apparently irresistible to the female, who begs him to come closer with enticing calls and her own wings fluttering. A few years ago, while I was leading an Earth Day walk at Lester Park in Duluth, closely followed by a TV news camera, we came upon two Merlins courting. The camera zoomed in on them and on the TV coverage that night, sure enough, there they were, engaged in an x-rated activity right there on TV for all to see. That’s the way Merlins are, and this pair by the school bus stop are no exception. Tommy doesn’t pay much attention to them, being a third grader and all—we meet his buddy Max at the bus stop and the two of them find rocks and puddles and climbing the street sign far more interesting. But all this activity will lead to new little Merlins that will keep our neighborhood entertaining me many years after Tommy doesn’t want me walking him to school any more.