Monday, January 11, 2010

Merlin makes the paper

The Columbus Dispatch has a long history of writing about nature and the environment. In fact, the newspaper runs what must be one of the longest running natural history columns of any newspaper.

Venerable naturalist Edward S. Thomas, a lawyer turned biologist, began a column in the Dispatch in March of 1922. Ed's first work appeared on March 5, 1922, and was entitled "Our Birds". This inaugural work laid down Ed's style: science made interesting, facts distilled into language that anyone could understand, all woven together in Ed's colorful, almost poetically descriptive prose. He went on to write over 3,000 more columns in a remarkable display of longevity spanning 59 years.

Ed's interests were broad indeed. Nothing in nature escaped his notice, and he became an acknowledged expert in a great many facets of the natural sciences. I was 18 when Ed wrote his last column, on rare winter birds. But I'd been reading Ed's column faithfully for many years, as even as a pre-teen I was fascinated with nature. Thomas' range of interests and expert command of so many subjects amazed me, and made a big impression.

In 1980, Ed Thomas handed the reins to legendary birder Jim Fry, who went on to pen the next 801 columns, now entitled Nature. Fry never missed a week in the entire 29 years that he wrote the column. An avid lister who traveled far and wide across the Buckeye State, Jim focused more on birds than Ed did, but his columns remained faithful to Ed's standard of interesting and educational columns.

I was flattered indeed to be approached by Jim and the newspaper about picking up the pen to keep the column going into its ninth decade of continual production. It took absolutely zero time to agree; I was floored to have the opportunity. Rare indeed is the chance to carry on such a tradition, especially when the two writers who have preceded me had such a profound influence on my own interests.

Merlin perched on a most appropriate sign; photo by Dr. Bernie Master. This is one of the coolest shots I've ever seen of one of these feathered speedsters, and Bernie was good enough to allow me to use it with my first Nature column, which appears below:

The Columbus Dispatch
January 3rd, 2010
Jim McCormac

Raptors are exciting birds. Like feathered missiles, they lock onto prey with laserlike eyes, and rocket out in pursuit. If all goes well – from the bird of prey’s perspective – the victim is seized, quickly dispatched, torn asunder and eaten. This is drama in the food chain, writ large.

Few predators weave their homicidal magic better than the merlin. These small falcons are consummate hunters, and small birds are their soup de jour. A small songbird caught in the sights of a merlin is in a heap of trouble.

Merlins are just a whisker bigger than the American kestrel – our most common Ohio falcon – but they’re one and a half times as heavy. This translates to a beefier bulk, and much more purposeful appearance. If these falcons were action heroes, the kestrel would be Bruce Willis; the merlin, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Falcons are characterized by long pointed wings and sleek tapered bodies. Everything about them is geared towards speed; these are feathered Lamborghinis operating at the outer limits of avian performance. As with the other falcons, merlins have a distinctive “mustache”; a dark splash of feathering on the side of their face. Unlike most of our birds of prey, male and female merlins look different. Females are brownish above, while males are slaty blue.

From a prominent perch, or while trolling on the wing, merlins search out lesser birds to attack. When prey is spotted, the falcon blasts off in pursuit. In an unbelievable burst of speed, the falcon is on its victim in the blink of an eye, often before the meal to be can react. Death is instantaneous; just a puff of feathers marking the spot. The merlin then retreats to a lofty perch to snack.

There are more merlins to admire these days. They, like many other species, were hard hit by rampant, unregulated pesticide use several decades ago. As DDT and other toxins have been purged from the environment, merlins have rebounded, their reproductive cycles no longer ravaged by poisons.

Merlins are ever-increasing fixtures in large urban cemeteries in winter. Big grave yards approximate their favored habitat of open country interspersed with large trees. Cemeteries are often urban oases for wildlife, including lots of songbirds, so there is food aplenty for the falcons. While merlins occur only as migrants and in winter, the day may come when they breed here, too.

For several years, Green Lawn Cemetery on Columbus’s south side has hosted one or two wintering merlins. No shrinking violets, they are prone to sitting atop dead branches jutting from the tallest trees. Fawning admirers don’t put them off, either – the merlin often won’t acknowledge its star-struck visitors with as much as a glance. People represent neither threat nor potential meal, and the little falcons arrogantly ignore us.

Regardless of your opinion of a bird that has no compunction about blasting your cardinal to bits, the increase in merlins is a wonderful thing. They are feathered success stories; proof that environmental disasters can be fixed. Urban-dwelling merlins also serve as ambassadors to nature; fascinating entrees into the world of birds. I have watched many a new birder stand transfixed by a merlin high overhead in a tree. They never fail to make an impression.


Janet Creamer said...

Congrats on your new column! Very nice article to start it off.

Russell Reynolds said...

Congrats Jim on the column, they have a great naturalist to carry on the article. Great article on the Merlin. Waiting for the opportunity to get one for my photo collection.

Lisa at Greenbow said...

Congrats on your new gig. You are certainly one of Ohio's treasures and it is fitting that a more diverse audience will be able to learn to enjoy the natural world in a deeper sense through your writings.

OpposableChums said...

Congratulations, Jim. It seems like a good fit.

Jana said...

I have a copy of In Ohio's Woods and Fields by Edward S. Thomas. When I found it I didn't know who he was. I really enjoy reading the essays in this book.

Maybe some day you'll publish a book with a collection of your Dispatch columns.


Scott said...

Congratulations, Jim; congratulations, Columbus Dispatch! I can't think of a more competent person to carry on this tradition. Your writing style and way of comparing birds, insects, etc. to pop-culture is sure to entice many readers to get into the field.

Anonymous said...

congratulations on being chosen to write the natural history column in Columbus Dispatch! With your interesting writing ability and nature credentials you will be great for this column. Looking forward to future articles.
Gary Wayne

Jim McCormac said...

Thank you all for your nice comments! And for reading my blog!


Dave Lewis said...

Way to go Jim!
Can I have your autograph?

Wil said...

Congratulations! Wonderful beginning indeed. You are certainly the man for this job. Ohio nature, writing and Jim - all go hand in hand.

Vickster said...

That's fantastic news! Congratulations!