For the Birds Radio Program: Merlins on Peabody Street

Original Air Date: June 17, 1987

Merlins are nesting on Peabody Street! Laura answers questions about them.

Audio missing


![Merlin} ( “Merlin”)

(Recording of a Merlin)

Last week I mentioned the pair of Merlins, also known as pigeon hawks, on my block. It turns out that these rare falcons are nesting in at least three other places in Duluth this summer–one pair is in Lester Park, another around Woodland Avenue and Vermillion, and another in the Central Hillside neighborhood at 702 Lake Avenue North. They’re so noisy and conspicuous that they’ve aroused the interest and curiosity of quite a few people, so I’ve been fielding a lot of questions about them.

First of all, the name Merlin is completely unrelated to Merlin the wizard. Falconers took the name from the Old English word Marlin, which referred to a female falcon. Non-falconers called them pigeon hawks, which was their official name for a long time. The American Ornithologists’ Union changed the name in 1973, hoping that people would be less prejudiced against a Merlin than a Pigeon Hawk. But that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet, and that which we call a Merlin, by any other name would still eat birds.

One gentleman asked me if there would be an open season on Merlins during grouse season. Absolutely not. All hawks and falcons are protected by Federal and state law, year-round. Anyway, shooting a bird just for the heck of it or to have it stuffed is at least as violent as, and far more wanton than, anything a Merlin does.

Why are they so noisy?

(Recording of a Merlin)

The female calls every time she gets off the nest. She flies to a dead tree and her mate joins her or calls back to her. He often drops food in front of her while both of them chatter loudly–she snaps the morsel up in mid-air and returns to the dead branch to eat. They both spend most of their time on the perch scratching and preening–they molt in summer, and growing new feathers apparently is an itchy process.

When the female has eaten and cleaned herself, she returns to the nest. She’s completely silent as she incubates her eggs. It takes a full month for the eggs to hatch, and she’s careful not to draw attention to them. Once they hatch, the nestlings will be as helpless as baby robins for three or four weeks. And after they fledge, they’ll depend on the adults for food and protection for another month or so. Young hawks have to practice to get good at hunting. By the time they’ve mastered it, it’ll be time to head south. Merlins winter from the southernmost U.S. all the way down to South America.

At least one neighborhood jay has found the nest–he flies up occasionally to hover alongside the nest and take a peek inside. I don’t know if the jay’s eyeing the eggs for a meal or if he’s just checking if the coast is clear–a jay would make a fine dinner for a Merlin.

Will they kill all the neighborhood birds? No. Most of the nesting birds within a couple of blocks have figured out the danger by now. The robins still sing, but at about half the normal volume. The jays are as silent and furtive as I’ve ever seen them. And as babies fledge, the parents seem to lead them further and further from the Merlin’s hunting area. Merlins usually hunt from a perch, and the smaller birds seem to know that they’re safe as long as they stay out of sight of the perch. At midday the Merlins usually rest, and that’s when the songbirds seem to be most active around the nest area. As far as I can tell, the Merlins are catching birds that fly over the neighborhood on their way to someplace else.

What are they doing in Duluth? In the entire country, I bet there aren’t more than one or two cities this big that have nesting merlins. Our relatively clean environment and abundant bird population are probably the most important factors. Nesting Merlins are a far better indicator than Telly Savalas of the quality of life in the Northland.

(Recording of a Merlin)

I’m Laura Erickson and this program has been For the Birds.