For the Birds Radio Program: Merlins

Original Air Date: May 15, 1989

Today Laura Erickson talks about the little falcon of the woods, the Merlin.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Merlin)

Last week I got a nice phone call from a west Duluth listener who has a pair of Merlins nesting right across the street from her. Sandy Carlson managed both to correctly identify this tricky little falcon, also known as the Pigeon Hawk, and to find the stick nest near the top of a spruce tree, and she’s been enjoying the noisy pair for over a week.

Merlins probably don’t build their own nests, but they often use abandoned crow or raven nests. Now that crows have become common nesters in the neighborhoods of Duluth for the past 10 years or so, I guess it was inevitable that the Merlins would follow. For the past two or three years, Merlins have been nesting in many areas of Duluth, including Lake Avenue in Central Hillside and across Superior Street from Ordean Junior High. Merlins are nondescript for falcons, but the noise of mated pairs is unmistakable. One might think that it wouldn’t be in a Merlin’s best interest to shout out its location to the birds in the area, but Merlins apparently know better.

Merlins aren’t much bigger than Kestrels, or sparrow hawks, but they have an impressive power that’s unmistakable–as New Jersey birder Peter Dunne says, “A Merlin is to a Kestrel what a Harley Davidson motorcycle is to a scooter.” Merlins chase off other falcons and hawks year-round, not just during the nesting season–Dunne writes in his excellent book, Hawks in Flight that “a Merlin’s territory may be inferred to be wherever it happens to find itself.”

During the breeding period the mated pairs seem very devoted. Two years ago I had the opportunity to watch one pair for several weeks—the female often hunkered down so low in the nest while the male was off hunting that she couldn’t be seen at all. When he made a kill, he would call loudly from a long distance away as he flew toward the nest. The female would fly out of what had moments before looked like an empty nest, and rush to her favorite perch near the top of a dead tree. The male would fly over and drop his catch—she always managed to grab it in mid-air before it fell far. She always ate every last bit of her meal—feathers, beak, bones, and all.

Both of them spent more time preening themselves than any birds I have ever seen—I suppose otherwise their feathers would get pretty goopy after a while. The only prey species I was able to identify were one Blue Jay, one goldfinch, one cedar waxwing, and two or three House Sparrows. Merlins sometimes take on more ambitious projects—they’ve been known to take flickers, Green-winged Teal, and small chickens. They also eat a few gophers, squirrels, mice, bats, toads, lizards, snakes, and insects. The pair that nested down my block took a baby red squirrel I had raised—that was the only meal I ever begrudged them. I’ve watched Merlins miss a lot more meals than they catch—even against a Merlin’s powerful flight a healthy songbird can use evasive action to escape.

The civilized Merlins that now live in Duluth are a treat most people in the United States don’t have. Thomas Sadler Roberts, the father of ornithology in Minnesota, wrote in 1936 that his acquaintance with the Pigeon Hawk in life was “limited to seeing it not over half a dozen times during 50 years.” Duluth may rank only 252nd in the nation in per capita income, but we’re number one in a way that really matters.

(Recording of a Merlin)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”