The Merlin is a small, compact falcon just slightly larger than an American Kestrel. Its body length is from 9-12 inches (24-30 cm) and the wingspan is 21-27 inches (53-68 cm). The Merlin’s tail appears square-tipped when folded while that of other falcons is usually more rounded. When perched, they seem to have a wide chest, big head and large, dark eyes. Their plumage appears dark above and streaked below. The tail has several white, narrow bands.
In North America, Merlins are widespread and appear to be adapting to human habitation and have learned to use suburban areas for nesting and wintering. They breed in boreal forests and typically nest near clearings around marshes and lakeshores. The Merlin primarily preys on small birds but will also take insects and an occasional small mammal.
These falcons are medium- to long-distance migrants and many will spend the winter in the southern United States or northern South America. A few birds remain in the north year around.
Merlins were once called Pigeon Hawks due to a resemblance to a pigeon in flight. Noblewomen, such as Catherine the Great and Mary Queen of Scots used Merlins for hunting and the bird became known as a Ladyhawk.
My own sightings of Merlins have been very brief and quite frustrating. A typical example occurred many years ago when my brother and I spent a few days before Christmas camping on Maryland’s eastern shore near Chincoteague Island, Virginia. At dawn, we hiked the beach and as we came over a sand dune, we saw a large mixed flock of mainly Dunlin and Sanderling working the tide line. A Merlin flew in low and flushed the birds. A second Merlin came in from above and easily captured a Dunlin in the confusion and both falcons flew out of sight over the dunes. The whole thing took about 15 seconds. Since then, the only Merlins I’ve seen have been little streaks of brown moving out of sight at a high rate of speed. They make Kestrels look like snails in comparison!
Recently, I found this migratory Merlin perched with his recent kill. He lived up to his pugnacious reputation by staring me down and leaning toward me, daring me to try and take his lunch! I took his picture instead.
Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!
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