Pigeon Hawks

Merlins are small, powerful falcons that summer and breed across Alaska, Canada, the Pacific Northwest and New England.  Heavier and slightly larger than kestrels, these raptors were once known as "pigeon hawks," not because they prey on pigeons but, rather, since the two birds have a similar appearance in flight.  Relatively uncommon in other areas of North America, merlins are best observed during the spring and fall migrations across the Heartland or in winter throughout the American West and Gulf Coast region.

Merlins prefer open, coniferous woodlands where they utilize the abandoned nests of crows, magpies or other raptors.  They feed primarily on songbirds and shorebirds, which they usually attack at high speed, but also consume large insects.  During the breeding season, pairs often hunt together; after the first scatters a flock of songbirds or shorebirds, the second zeroes in on an individual target.

During our recent travels in Quebec, I encountered more merlins than I have seen anywhere else on the Continent; while several were perched on trees or poles, one attacked a flock of sanderlings along the St. Lawrence Estuary and another streaked across a trail near Cape Gaspe, ambushing songbirds that foraged in the coastal thickets.  Once prized by falconers, merlins were significantly threatened by the use of DDT in the early 20th Century; their population has since rebounded and, like peregrines, they have begun to nest and hunt in northern cities.