For the Birds: Merlin –the feisty falcon

Saturday, June 25, 2011

a male Merlin. Photo by Hal Everett.
By Christine Southwick

If you hear a high-pitched, “Kee-kee-kee”, LOOK UP.

It will be a raptor of some sort. If you are lucky, it will be one of our local Black Merlins (also called Coastal Forest Merlin).

This small fast flying falcon is easily over-looked because of its size and speed. Since 2008 Merlins have been observed breeding here in urban trees . 

This year there were three identified pairs laying eggs, and attempting to raise young. Because of the long cold weather two of the nests may have failed, but the third nest in Shoreline appears to still be active.

The male Merlin has a blue-grey back, while the female and immature are brownish-grey to dark brown on their backs. Both have similar buffy streaked chests. On cloudy days, it is often hard to tell the orangish tint on the male’s chest.

Female Merlin. Photo by Barbara Deihl.
These feisty little falcons readily chase off larger predators, and will chase and capture flushed prey, no matter who was the original hunter. Merlin often tag behind a hunting Sharp-shinned Hawk just for that very reason. Merlins are such successful hunters that they often cache extra food nearby, to be eaten later. These fearless feathered raptors have been known to take on much bigger prey by knocking it out of the sky. They’ve even been known to take on cars….

Merlins don’t build their own nests, instead remodeling abandoned nests—mainly crows nests. The nests must be high, 36-100 feet up in a tall tree, usually evergreen, with some cover above it. Additionally, there needs to be an exposed tree top or limbs nearby from which the Merlin can view prey. 

It is important that big tall evergreens be protected and preserved in city landscapes for the charismatic Merlin.

Merlins fly fast and straight; they rarely dive-bomb like the Peregrine. They are the second smallest falcon in this area, with the Kestrel being the smallest. It is easy to misidentify a flying Merlin with a Sharp-shinned Hawk due to size, but look for the bent pointed wings of a falcon. Sharp-shinned Hawks have rounded wings, and their wing bend is nearer the head. Both raptors mainly eat birds, and indeed, Merlins were once called Pigeon Hawks.

flying Merlin. Photo by Doug Parrott.
At this time, the greatest danger to Merlins is loss of suitable habitat. Needing tall trees with an openness to hunt, some have now started nesting in urban area, since so many of their traditional breeding sites have been logged, or razed by urban expansion. Window strikes while chasing prey cause approximately 50% of all premature deaths.

Tell your neighbors to keep their tall trees, and LOOK UP. Who knows when you may find the next breeding Merlins?


Christine Southwick is on the Board of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory and is their Winter Urban Color-banding Project Manager. She is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat Steward, having completed their forty hour class. We're happy that she's sharing her expertise with us about the birds in our backyards.

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