Creature Feature: Merlin

Merlin - Photo Tim Daniel

As their range increases to the south, Merlins (Falco columbarius), the fierce little falcons once known as “pigeon hawks” for their resemblance to pigeons in flight, will be increasingly more than rare visitors to the Buckeye State.

Merlin - Photo Mick ThompsonWhen perched in a suburban neighborhood, a Merlin, lacking the strong facial pattern of most other falcons, could be confused with an immature Sharp-shinned Hawk—until you recognize its large deep brown eyes! When seen overhead, a Merlin, with its strongly tapered, checkerboard-patterned wings, could be confused with an American Kestrel—until you note the shorter tail and heavily streaked breast.  Or when seen from the back, a Merlin, with slate blue wings and cap (male), could again be confused with a Kestrel—until you notice that the tail isn’t rusty and has narrow white bands, instead.

Yes, this bird deserves a second look—and if you’re lucky, you might just get the chance!

Although the Merlin is considerably smaller than the Peregrine Falcon and easily recognizable by its shorter wings and faster wing beats, it is only inches larger than the smallest of North American falcons, the American Kestrel. (Kestrel, 8-11 in./Merlin, 9-12 in.) However, if one were to weigh both a Merlin and a Kestrel, the Merlin would tip the scales at up to 3 times the Kestrel’s weight—its heavier body evidence of a more muscular build and the source of the speed and power behind the Merlin’s forceful flight and spectacular aerial maneuvers.

Merlin - Photo Lee JaffeMerlins generally feed in the early morning and late afternoon—mostly upon small birds that they take mid-air, either by dashing from a perch in a tail chase or flying low, hugging the ground in a surprise attack. Under good conditions, this fast flier will likely catch one of every two targets. The few that escape the initial effort may attempt to “outrun” the hunter by flying in circles, as both predator and prey climb into the sky in a rising chase called a “ringing flight.” But the songbird quickly tires. And the Merlin takes his prey. A male and female pair may also hunt cooperatively—one bird flying low to flush prey, while the second flies above for the capture. In addition to the almost 900 small birds devoured each year, a Merlin also eats dragonflies and moths on the wing, small mammals (bats) and an occasional lizard.

Historically, Merlins have bred to the north and west of Ohio in and around open areas and at the edges of conifer woods, only passing through the state as migrants en route to wintering grounds in the southern United States and northern South America. In recent years, these supreme winged predators have been documented to be winter residents in Ohio, as well—snapping up hapless House Sparrows (3/4 of their diet!) throughout the winter months while perched atop an aged shade tree within the spacious sanctuary of an urban cemetery. In addition, within the last decade, Ohio has seen multiple reports of nests and nesting behavior within several counties, as Merlins adapt to more urban and suburban areas and the wealth of small songbirds provided by these open areas with large overstory trees.