For the Birds Radio Program: Merlin

Original Air Date: June 28, 1995

Laura found a Merlin nest near where she was staying on Burntside Lake near Ely. She found it fascinating even if she worried about all the little birds in the area. 3:32

Audio missing


I recently spent a week on Burntside Lake near Ely, and one of the high points was learning the whereabouts of a Merlin nest, just 50 yards or so from my cabin. Merlins are noisy little falcons that used to be extremely rare but have become familiar in the Northland in the past 10 years. They don’t build their own nests, but use old crow nests, usually in big spruces or pines. Female Merlins sit low enough in the nest while incubating that it is usually impossible to see them, but it’s an easy matter to find the nest because whenever the male makes a killing at the office, he rips in yelling at the top of his lungs, and she yells right back as she flies off the nest to accept the free lunch. She eats it on an exposed branch and then often yells again, as if thanking him, before flying back to the nest to disappear again.

This was the procedure the entire week I was at Burntside. There was a lovely dead snag nearby, where the male or female could often be seen eating its tiny meals, and the ground beneath was strewn with feathers untimely ripped from various warblers, a Blue Jay, and even one unfortunate Scarlet Tanager.

When I started birding 20 years ago, Merlins were few and far between. It took me six years to add a Merlin to my life list, and then it was a migrant along Lake Superior. For the next four years, the only Merlins I ever seemed to find were migrants, usually over Hawk Ridge. But then in 1986, they started nesting in Duluth—first one pair, then a couple, and now as many as six or seven each year, all noisily bringing up their babies to grow up to be noisy adult Merlins. You’d think predators would try to be a little more secretive in order to sneak up on their prey, but Merlins are cocky enough to trust ferocity and speed over stealth.

I sat out on the cabin porch many days with my licensed educational Blue Jay Sneakers. She was safe in her cage, and had a jolly time catching insects that flew into her cage. Most summers when I have her out there, Red-eyed Vireos and warblers zip up to her cage to pipe tiny obscenities at hear—Blue Jays occasionally raid nests for eggs and young, and little birds don’t like them hanging around their nest trees. But this year Sneakers was the least of their worries. As a matter of fact, the little birds were probably hoping that she’d be a good sentinel, so they pretty much left her alone. Sneakers hasn’t had much experience with Merlins in her sheltered life, so she wasn’t much help, but she did find the falcon activity highly interesting.

At 4:30 every morning, one Merlin yelled out a wake-up call, impossible to sleep through. Periodically throughout the day, he’d yell and fly in, and it was an easy matter for elderhostelers to add a new species to their life lists. I hope Merlins don’t get too much more common—warblers, tanagers, and other tropical migrants hardly need yet another nail in their coffin—but they make interesting neighbors. Like a teenaged boy with a motorcycle, Merlins may seem obnoxious and noisy at first, but if you take the time to really get to know them, you discover how jolly and decent they really are.