'Merlin' Pigeon Hawks fly in the Piney Woods

By Jay V. Huner
Jouranl Correspondent

Long known as Pigeon Hawks, the bird police changed this small falcon's name to Merlin - nothing to do with the King Arthur's famous magician - some years ago. Why? Well, Merlin is the preferred English name for a bird found in northern regions around the world. So, to be consistent, the Pigeon Hawk became the Merlin!

To add injury to insult, falcons are no longer considered to be hawks! That's thanks to modern DNA research. They're now considered to be more closely related to woodpeckers than hawks appearing hawk-like through what's called convergent evolution.

Merlins are similar in size to pigeons and fly a bit like them. There are three North American populations of Merlins ranging from being dark brown above with heavy dark streaking on their breasts to being grayish above with light streaking below. However, males are always "silvery" above, something hard to detect in the dark race. Tails are squared and have dark and light bars. Unlike other falcons common to our region - American Kestrel and Peregrine Falcon - there is either no vertical "mustache" descending from the eye or a very weak one.

Merlins differ from other falcons by depending on fast flight on a horizontal plane from cover, usually tree branches with a good view, to catch prey including small birds, mammals, reptiles, and large insects. They will also fly low to the ground to take unsuspecting birds by surprise. However, they do not fly above prey and "stoop", and dive at high speed to take prey.

Pairs will sometimes cooperate to attack flocking birds like waxwings. One will attack a flock, especially birds feeding in bushes, and as the birds flee the other will catch a disoriented fleeing bird.

They can catch the birds from below as well as in horizontal mode.

Merlins are fall and winter visitors to the southern piney woods but nest far to the north borrowing abandoned nests of crows and similar-sized birds. Males perform spectacular courtship behavior making steep dives , strong twisting flight, glides rolling from side to side, fluttering with shallow wingbeats.

Merlins are belligerent to the extreme. They will attack any predatory bird coming near their nests including eagles and regularly drive such huge birds away!

Merlins in fairly stable environments like the Pacific Northwest do not migrate. Some have taken up residence in larger northern cities in the great plains and remain the year round where there are plenty of pigeons, starlings and, especially, Houses Sparrows to keep them well fed.

Migratory Merlins spend the winter in southern regions of the USA as well as farther south in Mexico and into Latin America. So, these small falcons can cover long distances but, unlike hawks and eagles, they migrate close to the ground, just above tree tops. So, they are not well counted at hawk watches where eagles and hawks soar high above the earth in migration.

Falconry involves use of a raptor - eagle, hawk or falcon - to hunt game animals of sizes appropriate to the size of the raptor. In the case of Merlins, prey does not exceed the size of doves. In Medieval Europe, noblewomen including Catherine the Great and Mary Queen of Scots, favored Merlins to hunt Skylarks.