[Tweeters] Subspecies in Merlins

Bud Anderson falconresearch at gmail.com
Sat Oct 9 13:35:14 PDT 2010

Hey John,

Where are all those excellent and superb photos of yours on this one?

Well, I guess I'd like to comment on this Merlin issue, hopefully without
starting a huge landslide/flame war here on Tweeters.

Just my opinion, but having seen really a lot of breeding, migrant and
wintering Merlins here in WA over the years, including quite a few in hand,
I'd say not to be too concerned about calling subspecies in the field.

Can you do it here in WA sometimes? Sure. For example, a classic adult
male taiga Merlin is unmistakable. So is a really classic Black Merlin. And
if you really want to dig into the differences between them all, I'd always
recommend going back to Friedmann, 1950 *The Birds of North and Middle
America*, Part 11, Stan Temples article in the Auk (1968 I think)
Systematics of the North American Merlins and even the plumages described by
AC Bent back in the 1930's. All of those give some pretty detailed plumage
descriptions that you can wade through and try on for size. All of these
will give you an idea of what people were thinking back then. And how they
saw it in much simpler times (including pre-DNA).

But here is the problem. Many years ago, a guy named Eddie Biglow in
southeastern British Columbia discovered that all three presumed races
(Taiga, Black and Richardson's) were breeding in his local area. In some
cases, he found what he thought were classic representatives of each race
(e.g. a Black and a Richardson's) intermixed at several nest sites. So
basically he found a place where they all come together. Several Merlin
people went up there to see this and agreed that he was right.

Since then, people like Merlin expert Tom Gleason and others here in WA
have seen many instances of what appear to be Black and Taiga birds
interbreeding. An example would be a really, really black male with a light
brown female. There was such a pair in Burlington last year. You can imagine
what combinations that might produce in terms of plumage characters. So it
isn't as simple as it might appear.

And don't forget that vexing but gorgeous light colored Merlin in Edison
last year. Many thought it was a Richardsons (extremely rare in my
experience in western WA), others considered it a light Taiga bird. How
would you tell without the bird in hand?

Field guides obviously attempt to convey the plumage of all birds in a
given area. In doing that, and being limited in space, they are going to
emphasize examples of the classic differences to help us all learn to
recognize and learn them. And, don't get me wrong here, like most of you
reading this, I simply love bird field guides. But, as we all know, they
don't always work. Nature is just too vast and complex to be reduced to a
single painting or photograph. Incidentally, Steve Hermans famous quote
works here. "If you see a bird and it doesn't match the field guide, the
bird is the right one".

People like Dennis and other professional ornithologists on this list can
address how difficult it can be to separate subspecies in many types of bird
unless you have them in hand. And I won't even get into "what is a
subspecies anyway"?

For me, living where I do in western WA, I just call them all Merlins.
I stopped worrying about it a long time ago.

Hope this helps....

Bud Anderson
Falcon Research Group
Box 248
Bow, WA 98232
(360) 757-1911
falconresearch at gmail.com
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