Lucky Jim: what happened when our merlin was attacked by a buzzard

 

Lucky Jim

Peter Patterdale, Merlin Jim and Falconer Steve

Our little merlin, Jim, had a very lucky escape recently - he survived a buzzard attack! Here’s the story of our ‘Lucky Jim’. (Click on the images to enlarge them.)

Merlins are the smallest falcon native to the UK and, as you may already know, in birds of prey, the males are always smaller than the females. Our male merlin Jim is a tiny bird. He stands about 6 inches tall (15cm) and weighs in at only 5oz or 155g, approximately.

We got Jim in August from a top quality breeder of merlins based in N/E England. Steve has always loved merlins; he used to breed merlins about 25 years ago so he was delighted to have a wee falcon again and keen to get going with it.

“Getting going” with a new falcon means spending a great deal of time with it, in the first instance. The bird has to get used to you and its new surroundings, used to being handled and to its new ‘equipment’ - the jesses, leash and swivel.

As with all birds used in falconry in the UK, Jim was bred in captivity, so he’s not ‘wild’, as such, but he was certainly untrained. It’s Steve’s role as a falconer to train Jim, to prepare him to stand on the gloved fist, to be able to hunt, or to fly to the lure. He does this by taking him out every day, sometimes just to walk with him on the glove, other times to fly with him out in the fields surrounding our base at Hammer Inn or on site, using the lure to keep Jim’s attention here.

Jim settled in fast and was doing really well. People are often surprised that birds of prey have characters but they most certainly do and you can tell quite quickly what sort of character they have. Jim’s is easy-going; he’s very smart, gentle and keen. He and Steve clicked almost straight away and Steve was thoroughly enjoying training Jim. He even had Jim out hunting a couple of times (photos and video below), with Pete the Patterdale. (You can read more about merlin falcons and how they hunt in my blog post on Merlins.)

Jim, our jack (male) merlin on a fence post during a hunting session

By early September, Jim was very much part of the team. Here he is (below) in the line-up of a static display at Wormistoune, where Steve did a falconry show to help with fundraising for Maggie’s Cancer charity. Jim was very steady on the block and his small size attracted a lot of attention, especially from children who thought his size made him a baby falcon. He is, in a way, having only been bred in May, but he is fully-grown, as all birds of prey are by the time they are 6-8 weeks old.

When not with Steve, Jim spends a lot of time on his block. He’s tethered, of course, to stop him flying away - just as you would put a lead on a dog to stop it running off - but sitting still for hours on end and just watching is what falcons do.

Birds of prey use flight as a means to escape or to hunt so one that’s fed is quite happy to sit for hours at a time, resting and not using energy unnecessarily. (It takes a lot of energy to fly!) It’s where the term ‘fed-up’ comes from: a bird that’s full (i.e. ‘fed-up’) won’t fly; it does nothing. So we say, when we’re bored and doing nothing, that we’re ‘fed up’. It’s an expression taken straight from falconry, like ‘under the thumb’!

Anyhow, one afternoon Jim was out on his block with the rest of the team and Steve had a falconry booking that he was preparing for. He had boxed the harris hawks and hooded the falcons and walked away from the weathering area to put some rubbish in the bin. Only a minute or two later he heard Jim’s kek-kek-kek cry, and knew Jim was in distress because he was shouting very loudly - an alarm call.

Steve ran back to the weathering as fast as he could.

When he came round the corner of the workshop, to his horror Steve saw a large female buzzard just taking off from beside Jim’s block, leaving Jim lifeless on the ground.

Footage from our CCTV camera

Poor Jim!

Steve went over to Jim and untied his leash and picked him up. Jim was completely still, and stayed limp in Steve’s hand. Distraught, Steve brought him into the house, convinced he was dead. However, once inside, Jim opened his eyes. He was breathing very heavily and clearly in distress so we thought he was dying and just held him in a blanket to keep him warm.

When a bird is attacked by another bird of prey, they are usually badly injured with puncture wounds from talons, or have feather and flesh torn off by the attacker’s beak. Because Jim was lying on his front, it was difficult to see any marks on him so we couldn’t tell what damage the buzzard had done.

 

Remarkably, within about twenty minutes, Jim started to move. We placed him inside a travel box - amazed that he could even stand - to give him a calm, quiet space to rest. But there still seemed little hope that he would recover.

A female buzzard weighs about 3lbs or 1.3 kgs and is around 21 inches (55cm) tall, so that’s quite a size advantage over little Jim!

Steve reckoned she’d only had half a minute or so on Jim before Steve had run back to the weathering but that’s more than enough time to have inflicted fatal damage. And if he was somehow, incredibly, not badly wounded, would Jim survive the shock?

 

Lucky Jim

Later that evening, to our surprise and relief, Jim was still alive and Steve managed to get him to eat a little. Jim had blood on his cere (the blue bit above his beak where his nostrils (known as nares) are and he was breathing heavily so still plenty to be concerned about. However, Jim spent the night in his travel box and was still going strong in the morning.

We are hugely fortunate to live near an experienced and expert falconer-vet, Keith, who practises out of the Eden Veterinary Practice at Cupar. Keith agreed to fit Jim in that morning so that he could be checked over and given antibiotics. When Steve came back with Jim later that day, we were both astounded: Keith could find no obvious signs of injury (other than the bit of blood on his cere); Jim had the laboured breathing but, otherwise, seemed fine!

You can see from the video (above) how hard the buzzard whacked Jim and you can see that she pinned him down and that Jim stops moving. It looks like she held Jim by his head with one of her talons (explaining the blood on his cere) and, perhaps, that blocked his airway so that he lost consciousness. In fact, that may well be what saved Jim’s life: it may have stopped the buzzard going in for the kill because she may have thought he was already dead.

Keith had said Jim was to be on antibiotics for 5 days and - if he made it to then - should be fine. He did and he is! He gained a little weight - up an ounce to 180 grams - which really made his feistiness come through, but that was the only change in him. Lucky Jim!

 
 
 

Steve’s next job was a net job. He wanted to protect the birds when they are sitting out on the weathering lawn so he ordered some 4” predator netting (used to protect ponds from herons, and the like) and installed it across the entire weathering. It’s perfect - reassuring but not too distracting.

The buzzard watched from a distant fence post while Steve put the netting up but we haven’t see her since, so hopefully she’s got the message and moved on.

Jim has now fully recovered. The hunting season has passed so it’ll be next year before Jim gets to go out hunting again with Steve and Pete. He’s back in his mews at night and frequently out on his block by day, but now safe(r) under the predator netting.

Jim’s definitely proved he’s a tough little bird and his resilience has been remarkable. He’s still in his first year, of course, and could live until he’s 12 - 15 years old, so we hope he’ll have many more years with us.

If, in time to come, you visit us for a falconry experience, I hope Jim’s still here for you to see*. And when you do, you’ll know why we might sometimes refer to our merlin as Lucky Jim.

*Or not… as it turned out. I’m sorry to say that Jim died suddenly, only a couple of weeks later, and just when he seemed to be fully recovered. We reported the news on our Facebook page.


I hope you enjoyed Jim’s story. (And if you were one of the many people who sent messages of support and good wishes to Jim on Facebook and Twitter when all this happened - thank you very much!)

Anything else you’d like to know about Jim? Or about merlins? Please ask in the comments below.


Other posts you may be interested in

Photos and video

Deborah Brazendale

 

 

What is the point of wasps?

What is the point of wasps?

Have you noticed the increase is wasp numbers in the last couple of weeks? It seems as though they're everywhere! Buzzing angrily at windows in your office and at home, being pesky at picnics and beer gardens, interrupting conversations, causing us to shudder and shift, squeal and shriek, swat and swear.

It's hard to find anyone who's a fan of wasps - most people loathe them and many have a big fear of them. Is that you? Do wasps make you shudder or shriek? Are you frightened of the pain wasp stings inflict?Frightened that they'll attack and sting you multiple times, and that those stings could even be deadly?

I know - and I get it. But it seems such a small creature to cause such fear and loathing!

I expect that this level of fear and loathing is part of the reason we know so little about wasps. Wasps are mysterious to most of us. Think about it: what do you really know about wasps?

'They sting!'

Okay,... Anything else? 

Do you know about the different types of wasps there are and the nests they build? About what wasps eat? And, come to think of it, what eats wasps? How (and why) wasps sting? What makes a wasp's sting so sore? How long do wasps live for? How do wasps raise their young? No idea?! 

It's true to say that most people don't know much about wasps at all. In fact, one of Google's most common wasp-related questions is 'What's the point of wasps?' Let's see if we can figure that out in this blog post. 

What do wasps do?

You might not think it, but wasps are helpful! Like all creatures, wasps have a purpose - they are a natural pesticide; they cut down the number of pests you have to deal with by hoovering up bugs, insects and animal matter. Sterile worker females forage for insects (including aphids and blackfly) and carrion to bring back to the wasp grubs or larvae growing in the nest.

We've had a colony of Western Yellow-jackets in the font garden this summer. The workers were frequent visitors to Steve's stash of hawk food in the early part of summer, looking for meat or protein to take to the nest.

What's fascinating, however, is that these female wasps feed off a sweet liquid that is secreted by the larvae they bring the meat to. They feed the larvae and the larvae feed them, in return; each gets something from the other: the larvae gets protein; the females get carbs in the form of sugar. 

It's only when the wasp larvae have matured - at the end of summer - that you'll suddenly become much more aware of wasps in numbers because the females are no longer getting that sugary secretion from within the nest. The larvae have grown into fertile males and females and left the nest to prepare next year's colony, so the infertile worker females are forced to seek sweet liquids outside the nest. And that's when your juice and ice-cream and flowers suddenly become a magnet for a multitude of wasps. No wonder they're aggressive. To use a runner's parlance, they're 'hangry'!

Because nature is amazing, it just so happens that the timing of 'hangry' wasps looking for sugary food coincides with ripening fruit falling to the ground and releasing ripening, even pungent, sugars. I managed to capture the wasps demolishing an apple near their nest over just a few days last month. Isn't it amazing? And a little twitch-inducing!

Day 1: the wasps break into the apple

Day 2: burrowing right into the apple now

Now that we know all that, let's address the big concern: can you die if a wasp stings you?

Yes, but it's extremely unlikely! Like really rare.

Here are the two ways that wasps stings can be fatal: you can die as a result of receiving too many stings and you can die as the result of an allergic reaction to even one single sting. What are your chances of either?

Firstly, how many wasps stings is too many? How many wasps stings would it take to kill you? Of course it all depends, but the answer is probably more than you'd think.

Generally, it's thought that an otherwise healthy adult can survive as many as 1,000 wasps stings. A THOUSAND stings! Now a thousand stings is certainly night-marish. That kind of experience would be beyond painful and it's obviously a serious level of injury, yet it's survivable. But how often do you hear of anyone being stung even a hundred times? Or ten? Most people that have been stung have suffered a single sting and a few had the bad luck of two or three but I've never heard of more than a handful of times in the one attack. That makes the chances of a multi-sting death are pretty low, wouldn't you agree?

So what about a single-sting reaction? 

Anaphylaxis is the extreme allergic reaction that causes the body's defence systems to over-react - to go into shock and, in a few cases, to shut down. It can be triggered by certain foods and medicines, but also by bee and wasp stings. ‘Anaphylactic shock’ happens fast and it's difficult to predict and prevent. It is a terrifying thought but it's extremely rare, in fact it's estimated that less than 0.5% of the population is affected. Records show that fewer than 10 people each year in Britain die from anaphylactic shock resulting from wasp stings. In a population of more than 55 million, that's also pretty low odds.

Statistically speaking, then, we are extremely unlikely to die as the result of a wasp sting. And yet many of us are still afraid of wasps. And even those of us who aren't are still wary when a wasp enters our space. Why? Because wasps are aggressive and they do sting and their stings hurt!

Why does a wasp sting hurt so much?

There are three main problems with a wasp's sting:

  1. A wasp's sting hurts going in but it also has a complex chemical make-up that can agitate the sting site and the surrounding area for days. Wasp stings also include the allergy-inducing component called Antigen 5 that can cause anaphylactic shock.

  2. Each sting acts as a marker or a signpost to other wasps, signalling the sting recipient as a threat and driving more wasps to attack the victim.

  3. The sting is not a once-only option for a wasp. Wasps can sting multiple times because, unlike bees, the wasp's stinger can be retracted and reused and a stinging wasp doesn't die.

The ground nest of our colony of yellow jacket wasps.

How can you avoid being stung by a wasp?

Wasps get riled up by intruders and especially by intruders wearing bright colours (hello, summer wardrobe) or behaving aggressively, so you can minimise your risk of being stung by staying away from wasp nests and not making loud, sudden movements in colourful clothes around wasps. (Less of all that shrieking and swatting, for a start! It doesn't help and it's almost certainly making things worse.) 

Most people aren't encountering wasps at their nest site, of course. You're probably not intruding into their space - they're probably in yours. If that's in your house, or at the office, or in a beer garden or at the park, try to stay calm and leave them be. They're likely to move on or find something more interesting than you - something sweet, probably. 

That's not to say that you shouldn't get out of the way if you come under attack by a wasp. Because one wasp's aggression is contagious to the others, and one sting encourages more to sting, so you definitely shouldn't stand still if a wasp stings you. Get out of there! But just try not to flail your arms and scream and shout at the same time. 

If you do get stung by a wasp, antihistamine is your best bet at countering the effects. 

How do you get rid of a wasp's nest?

I know plenty of people have managed to remove nests or bykes for themselves by using one of the many sprays and powders on sale, but for me that's an easy one: just call in the professionals. Here's the thing: wasp nests can be HUGE. By mid-summer, they are likely to contain many thousands of wasps. That's not something you want to unleash and get wrong on your own. It’s also possible that what you think is a wasp is not and it would be tragic to get rid of bees by mistake :-( It happens every year.

The yellowjackets’ nest

The yellowjacket burrow we have may hold as many as 20,000 wasps. It's 5 feet from the house and definitely not something I’d want to stir up! We haven't done anything about it as there hasn't been a reason to - they have just gone about their business.

Once the colder weather comes in, that colony will die out and they won't reuse the same site next year. But if they set up home somewhere that puts us in conflict, or that increases our risk of being attacked to a level that's just not acceptable, we'll get a pest-control pro in to help.

What eats wasps?

It's the cold weather that kills most wasps but they are also predated upon, which always surprises people. In Scotland's countryside, badgers will dig up an underground nest to feed on the larvae. Honey buzzards, though mostly based down south in places like the New Forest, do breed as far north as the Lake District and parts of Scotland, and they raise their chicks on a diet that includes wasp and bee grubs. The densely-packed feathers around honey buzzards' beaks enables them to resist wasp stings and their strong talons help them to excavate wasp nests. 

Also, despite the wasp's clear warning in the form of its yellow and black stripes, a danger-sign in nature, other smaller birds are also happy to risk eating wasps, notably blackbirds, magpies and starlings. We had a colony of starlings in the Leylandii hedge this summer, which is just above the wasps' nest and just below the apple tree. Which means bed and breakfast for all! 

Other predators of wasps are dragonflies, beetles and moths. Without wasps, these other species wouldn't be able to thrive, which is the whole point of wasps and everything else that makes up an eco-system!

After just 3 days, this is what's left of the apple.

After just 3 days, this is what's left of the apple.

Wasp trivia

There are over 100,000 different types of wasp in the world, and 250 in the UK. As with bees, most species of wasp are solitary but we tend to think of colony wasps such as the Western Yellowjackets as the only kind of wasps. 

Wasps have never been popular, even before we had beer gardens and windows! Unlike bees, they rarely feature in place names, pub names or heraldry and they always symbolise aggression, which is why their name is bestowed on military aircraft and ships, rugby teams and angry people. 

The Latin name for a wasp is a vespa. Did you just have a moment of enlightenment with that fact? It stopped me in my tracks when I realised! How had I not known that before? (Mind you, it took me until my forties to twig that Eeyore's name was also onomatopoeic.) 

Of course! A Vespa! What a perfect name for that stylish little buzzing scooter! Brilliant. 

I hope this article at least makes you less anti-wasp and more aware of their benefits to our eco-system. GIve it a like if you found it interesting but, if you have any wasp stories or more wasp trivia, do tell! You can comment below.


Sources

Images

Photos and video by Deborah Brazendale


Tell me about your interactions with wasps in the comments below. Hate them? Sneaking admiration for wasps? Worse that spiders or not?! Is there another garden or countryside creature in Scotland that you'd like to know more about?