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Observing a crime scene in the bird world

Friday, November 12, 2021
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I witnessed an assault in the animal kingdom unfolding through my living room window the other day.

My wife and I had just gotten out of bed on a lazy weekend morning when we heard the most frantic squawking coming from somewhere close by.

I found the right window in time to see that some kind of bird of prey had snatched a woodpecker out of the air and pinned him to the ground, just a few feet from the glass.

I had a hard time profiling the assailant. His head and beak looked like a falcon’s, but he was so small, only the slightest bit bigger than the victim.

He was certainly nowhere near the size of the majestic hawk that I found perched on my car a while back, if you remember that column.

But that wasn’t stopping him. This avian attacker had his talons firmly planted on the poor woodpecker’s head and was spreading his wings wide, as if to make himself look more intimidating.

Perhaps he was doing this because the assault had drawn quite a crowd.

The local bird population didn’t like having a crime scene in their backyard one bit. I heard a cacophony of annoyed jabberings and twitterings emerge from the thick wall of trees that separate our yard from the neighbor’s. A plucky blue jay — a species that isn’t known for playing well with others — hopped right up to the scene of the attack and looked down from a low branch just a foot off the ground. He looked right at the assailant and yammered away.

I took it to mean “get off my lawn,” or something to that extent.

The mini-falcon seemed unconcerned, as he simply spread his wings some more and started plucking at the still-shrieking woodpecker with his beak.

I guess my mistake was describing out loud what was happening to Cydney, who, as a full-term pregnant woman, wasn’t bothering to get off the couch and see the commotion for herself.

I think the attacker heard me, because he swiveled his head to look right at the window. After a moment, he decided he’d had enough of all the attention and took to the air, sailing over the trees with his still-alive prey in tow.

The crowd of local witnesses soon dispersed, and I took to Google to help get a better description of the perpetrator, in case the avian authorities called me in for questioning.

Out of all the species of raptors that my internet exploration said were native to this area, the closest fit to the bird I witnessed was a merlin — a type of small falcon sometimes known as a pigeon hawk.

“Falco columbarius” fit everything I had seen, except that the head of the specimens in the photos wasn’t quite what I remembered.

If he was a merlin, the bird I’ve been referring to as a “he” this whole time was actually either a female or a juvenile male, based on coloring.

Apparently merlins were used by women in medieval falconry. Both Catherine the Great of Russia and Mary Queen of Scots supposedly flew merlins.

I don’t think the perpetrator of this particular backyard assault was the hunting bird of some monarch, though. He (or she) was probably just hungry.

I’m a recluse by habit, and most of my hobbies are indoor affairs. But I’ve gone on lots of walks with Cydney throughout her pregnancy, and I’m starting to reclaim my childhood fascination with nature and the animal kingdom.

If you ever feel like you’re stuck on a never-ending cycle of being busy all the time, rushing from one task to the next, take a minute to stop, go outside and observe nature. You may be surprised at the fresh perspective it’ll bring.

After all, you could have been that woodpecker.

Caleb Daniel is the Ruston Daily Leader’s Digital News Editor. Caleb is a Louisiana Tech University graduate who covers the Lincoln Parish Police Jury and schools for the Ruston Leader.