Beware of the merlin! With Halloween right around the corner, one of the most fitting birds to discuss would be the merlin. For birds, the sight of the merlin, the second smallest of six falcons found in the Unites States, is very scary. This bird of prey feeds on other birds, small mammals and dragonflies. Not even the smallest falcon, the american kestrel, is safe from the talons of the merlin. Only other birds of prey are safe from the merlin’s grasp.
Finding a safe spot away from the merlin is essential. The bird is particularly fierce in catching its prey in flight and is very fast in doing so. While flight pursuit speed could not be determined, a transmitter fitted on a merlin found that the bird’s normal flapping flight speed alone measured between 29 and 46 miles per hour. This is according to William Cochran, of the Illinois Natural History Survey team.
The merlin breeds in Canada, Alaska, the upper peninsula of Michigan, as well as the extreme northern part of all states west of Michigan. In the eastern part of the U.S., the merlin migrates to all coastal areas from Maryland and also migrates to the West Indies, Mexico, Central American and extreme northern South America.
When in coastal areas, the merlin likes to be near flocks of songbirds and shorebirds, in hopes of catching the birds by surprise. With pointy wings like all falcons, the merlin is built for speed and often uses that tactic to catch birds by surprise.The merlin often does so by flying low. It also likes to fly after prey after perching for awhile and then spotting the prey.
The merlin, the second smallest of seven falcons found in the U.S., is 9.5 to 12 inches in length, with the female slightly larger than the male. The wingspan is about 27 inches, or just over two feet in length. According to ColumbusAudubon.org, while the merlin is only inches larger than the kestrel, it weighs about three times more. That’s because of its more muscular build, built specifically to catch birds in flight.
There are three subspecies of merlins. The taiga subspecies is the one that, though uncommon, migrates through Ohio. The taiga male merlin, according to wikipedia.org, possesses a dark gray back and head, “with a pale mustache stripe and a thin white eyebrow. The underparts are buff to orange tinted and heavily streaked and are black to reddish brown.” The legs are orange and the beak is black. The female is more brown in color.
In the fall, the merlin migrates through Ohio in September and October. Just a few days ago I found one perching for a short time on a dead tree in the back yard. I’ve seen one there for a longer period in the past. At at that time, it was being harassed, or “mobbed”, by blue jays. This procedure is usually done in order to get the merlin to fly away.
In this case, though, the feisty and very aggressive merlin chased after one blue jay. Although I didn’t see it catch the blue jay, the blue jays did not come back to harass the merlin. And the last merlin I saw, though it didn’t stay more than 10 minutes, was free of harassment.
When migrating, merlins often are solitary. But the most scary time for birds is when the merlin hunts in pairs. According to allboutbirds.com, one attacks from below, to flush the flock of birds. Meanwhile, the other comes in and takes advantage of the confusion. Of note, the merlin rarely flies down to catch its prey. It usually attacks from below, or straight on. The merlin often chases until the bird tires.
The merlin is usually found in grasslands and forested openings. But some merlins are taking to urban and suburban areas, where they use old crow nests to nest in. for their nests. In some select areas, with now some scattered reports in Ohio, the merlin, formerly called the pigeon hawk, has found enough food (mainly rock pigeons and house sparrows) to stick around year round.