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A flurry of feathers


By Irene Lo Scerbo


I’ve always been a bit of a birdbrain. I come by it honestly, having been trained in my youth by a sharp-eyed, bird-watching father. Even without binoculars, Dad could spot the tiniest flycatcher — better yet, he could see the fly in its beak.

And so it was that my little sister and I were taught to amuse ourselves by competing for the highest red-winged blackbird count as Dad’s old Pontiac zipped past ditch after bird-filled ditch on the long drive to Twin Lakes Beach.

Swampy cottage country became my private wonderland for two weeks every summer, and there I would fill my senses to overflowing with the eerie, incessant humming, the relentless shrieking, and the frequent explosion of wings in the dense, still air. Soon enough, though, I’d leave behind the intense heat and humidity of my favourite marsh and run to the beach where Dad and my sister and many bird friends had already found relief in the cool, clean wide-openness of the great grey lake. But that was then and this is now.

It’s no longer my father, but my husband, Tony, who keeps me out of trouble, right here in the city. He’s got me looking and listening for birds, photographing birds and writing about birds. Apparently, Somebody Up There is intent on helping me comply with Tony’s agenda.

If it flies and has feathers, we’ve had it, got it, or you can bet we’ll soon be getting it. Want to meet the comical crow who led me through a honeysuckle bower buzzing with bees? Or weep at pictures of Willy the warbler, who once could sing, but now she can’t? And then laugh because a dozen of Willy’s relatives bombarded our house on the first anniversary of her fatal collision with my office window? And if you ask nicely, I’ll tell you a duck tale or two.

Year before last, Tony and I became landlords to a mallard hen. Momma D. hatched 11 fuzzy ducklings under our cedar bush, waddled away with them, returned last spring, laid another 11 eggs, and six days into her incubation period was killed and eaten by the neighbourhood fox.

This spring another feisty duck chose Momma’s old nesting site. Day after day, lovesick Mam’selle Mallard and her mate swam in our ditch, cavorted in our pool, and pooped on our deck. Like poor Momma D. before her, she lost 11 eggs. Perhaps it was that same rascally fox who ate them, but at least Mam’selle lived to quack about it. She laid another nine, mourned after they, too, were destroyed, and grimly joined the ranks of the childless.

Both Mam’selle and Monsieur qualify as finalists for the Lo Scerbo family’s esteemed Backyard Bird of the Year Award, but they won’t win. We’ve decided in favour of five soon-to-be-famous feathered friends (or fiends, if you’re counting Tony’s vote).

In early April, as Tony and I watched Mam’selle and Monsieur dipping and dunking a few feet from our kitchen window, we became aware of unfamiliar, but indisputable bird action — bold screeching, plunging, and flapping — overhead, in the trees, and on the peak of the neighbours’ roof.

For two decades, birds of all species managed to share that roof amicably. Not this year, not since a pair of raptors blew onto our street.

One look through my binoculars, a quick web search, and I soon determined who the noisy intruders were and what they were up to. Merlin falcons: small, compact birds of prey; females slightly larger/heavier than males; both sexes equally aggressive, but male does most of the hunting; a threat to songbirds. I’m no authority on medieval magicians, but the name Merlin was a dead giveaway. Whenever an unsuspecting bird took to the air, we’d hear a loud ki-ki-kee, a whoosh and a swoop. Bye-bye, tweety birds.

We’re not sure where the merlins nested, but for five months our neighbours’ rooftop was alien-occupied territory, staked out by the merlin clan as its primary mating station, preening post, outhouse and lookout tower. To top it off, these nasties established their home base as a no-fly zone.

Admittedly, some birds did get past them. One morning Tony looked on as, after two attempts to knock a sassy crow out of the air, Pop Merlin sensed the futility of his efforts and flew off to target a less agile victim. Yet, judging by the ever-increasing number and variety of bird-bits decorating our yard, we deem that crow fortunate to have escaped the powerful, scythe-like talons and razor sharp beak of its assailant. (Merlins decapitate and pluck their prey before eating.)

To the best of my recollection, my dad never introduced us girls to a bird so devilish. Thus, not wanting to waste my newfound knowledge about this fascinating species, I emailed my sister a video clip of Pop Merlin pulling apart his freshly caught prey. Afraid she might be offended by this uncensored act of violence, I was pleasantly surprised and honoured when she replied, “You think you could send your merlin over here to eat our stupid grackles?” Those squawking pests were so abundant in her area that residents would do anything to get rid of them.

But how do you tell a falcon where to go? Tony ignored my sister’s plea and persisted in cleaning out eaves troughs, birdbaths and flowerbeds, whichever location served as a dumping ground for the next stray head or body part. As for me, I bought a new camera and spent the next month aiming it at Pop and his mate, who went about their bloodthirsty business as if I were invisible.

One July evening, the merlins put on a suppertime performance I won’t forget. Expecting Pop to drop off some fast food for his hungry mate, I steadied myself, focused my camera on Mom, who was doing her feed-me-now-or-I’ll-bite-you dance up on the roof. Out of the blue, Pop swooshed down with a tasty treat in his talons, but before Mom could grab the unlucky bundle of birdlife, it was ripped to shreds by a hideous hurricane of claws, wings and beaks that spewed fleshy debris in every direction. I saw three — no, four — no, five merlins — Mom and Pop plus three rough and tumble rowdies. The young had fledged.

From that day on, the new kids on the block set about terrorizing the neighbourhood, continuing their reign of carnage until early August. They then left the breeding area to establish territories of their own. My sister noticed a young merlin in her vicinity. One of ours? Perhaps it will feed on those pesky grackles.

With the young ones gone and fewer mouths to feed, Mom and Pop have stopped monopolizing the bird world as we know it — which may explain why a lone mourning dove recently touched down on the merlin-stained roof, just long enough to declare peace and have its picture taken. The dove’s act of bravery has not been repeated.

Our little birdie friends are gradually returning to the garden, the fence and the feeder. How refreshing to watch them eke out a slightly more peaceful existence.

Tony and I have entertained a strange array of backyard visitors of all sizes, plumage and colours, each with its unique beauty and singular voice — none, quite so magnificent as the prairie merlins. I wish Dad were here to be dazzled by their magic, and to be charmed, as we have been, by the antics of our various other swift-winged guests.

But then, I suspect he’s had a bird’s-eye view all along.

Lo Scerbo lives and writes her life from Winnipeg, the place she calls home — for now.