A few days ago, a Co Cork reader, George Harding, dropped me an email to say that he’d found my recent article about throngs of rooks darkening my local sky at sunset intriguing because he, too, has flocks of rooks over-flying the view in front of his home at fall of light.
Furthermore, he had something, also intriguing, to report about a rook attack on a small bird-shaped like a swift and just as fast-flying.
A close observer of nature, he knew he had witnessed a rare sight indeed, and was very pleased when my friend and doyen of West Cork birdwatchers, the potter, Peter Wolstenholme, confirmed his conclusion that the victim was a merlin, a rare bird indeed, even rarer out of its usual habitat.
George, a published poet,excellently describes the incident “One of the joys of winter is looking out my window in our place near Kinsale and watching various flocks of birds, especially the rooks.
“There is a small rookery down in the wood of scots pines of about 200 birds. They were displaced a few years ago by buzzards, but are now back in their home territory. We are close to the sea, and it is not unusual to watch a couple of rooks ‘seeing off” a kestrel or even a buzzard.
“However, on this particular day recently, they were after a much smaller bird that definitely was not a kestrel or any of the other raptors that I am familiar with. This bird was not unlike a large version of a swift and exceedingly fast, and was racing away from the chasing rooks in a sort of zig-zag fashion.
Merlins are scarce in Ireland, ranging over remote uplands and rarely encountered even where they do occur. Their tiny size and extreme speed are their defining characteristics: George’s comparison to the swift is apt. Agile hunters, they skim low over the ground at great speed and twist and turn after their prey of large insects, small mammals and birds.
Many of our Irish raptor species are now rare or gone. When I was a boy, barn owls were common. One used to fly across the yard light behind our house in Emmet Square in Clonakilty at night: my father said it was catching moths, and he’d leave the light on,despite the economies he generally practiced, so as to give it a few nighttime hours of hunting. It nested in one of the old stables in the yard. There were mice galore, because the previous owner of the house had kept horses and oats that went astray.
I remember that when we lived in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, in the mid-1950s, my father would bring home dazed or damaged barn owls which he had found on the road home from the golf club, especially on summer nights when they were hunting moths over the road surface and blinded by headlights and then hit.
There were few cars at the time, and perhaps sometimes it was his own car that hit them.
We would keep them in a large dry room on the upper floor of an old stable block behind the house and I’m afraid that, at least once, my little brother and I trapped unfortunate mice in a cage trap and let them loose in the room to feed a kestrel my father had found with a damaged wing.
Probably half-starved, it swooped first on one mouse, and then another. They had no escape route. We were delighted, of course, but half-sorry to see the kestrel recover after a couple of days and my father leaving the window open so that it could fly away.
The owls, as far as I remember, all recovered too and were let go free, but I remember one that disappeared from the room as if by magic. The door and the windows were still closed when I went up there to look at it the morning after my father brought it home, but that evening, when I went to look again, it was gone.
I called my father, and he solved the mystery or, at least, suggested an answer. The unused fireplace and the chimney above it were, of course, open.
It had probably found its way to freedom via the flue my father said that, what with the soot on its white feathers, its friends wouldn’t know him when they met him!