An Imperial Beach Hidden Gem and Bird of the Week, the Merlin
Nov 01, 2018 04:19PM
By Paul Spear
This week’s “Bird of the Week” is the Merlin (Falco columbarius), a rather small falcon, compact and fast-flying, the Merlin is a common breeder across the northern forests of North America and Eurasia. It feeds mostly on small birds, capturing them in mid-air in rapid pursuit. The Merlin is generally found in wild places, but since about 1960 it has become a common urban bird in several towns on the northern prairies; there it nests and remains through winter, relying on a steady supply of House Sparrows as prey.
Merlins have increased in numbers in some parts of their range, especially the northern plains, and have expanded into new nesting areas, where they often nest in towns and suburbs. Most North American populations seem to be either stable or increasing.
Preferred habitat is in open conifer woodlands, prairie groves; and in migration, also foothills, marshes, and open country. They generally breed in semi-open terrain having trees for nest sites and open areas for hunting. Habitat varies from coniferous forests in the north and on northwest coasts to isolated deciduous groves and suburban yards on prairies. Merlins may winter in more open areas, such as grasslands, and coastal marshes.
Merlins do most of their hunting by watching from a perch, then flying out to capture prey in the air. They also hunt by flying low among trees or over ground, taking prey by surprise; seldom diving steeply from above to capture prey. Birds, insects, and bats are usually caught in mid-air.
Diet is mostly small birds, often specializing on locally abundant species of birds (such as Horned Larks on the plains, House Sparrows in urban settings, and small sandpipers on the coast). They also feed on large insects (especially dragonflies), rodents, bats, and reptiles.
After mating, females lay 4-5, sometimes 2-6, whitish, lightly or heavily marked with reddish-brown eggs. Incubation is mostly by females in 28-32 days. Males bring food to females, then they incubate while she eats. Females remain with their young most of time, brooding them when they are small. Males bring food, females take it from them near the nest and then feed it to their young. Age of young at first flight is about 29 days.
In courtship, males perform a spectacular flight display, with steep dives, strong twisting flight, glides, rolling from side to side, and fluttering with shallow wingbeats. In courting, males bring food and present it to females. Nest sites are usually in a tree in an old nest of hawks, crows, or magpies, 10-60' above ground. They also build nests sometimes in a large tree cavity, on a cliff ledge, or on the ground. Usually little or no material is added to existing nests.
I recently saw a Merlin perched on a tree stump in the Estuary while hunting. This bird is often misidentified as an American Kestrel due to it’s similar size and plumage, and at first, I thought it was a female American Kestrel. My birding friend on the East Coast helped with the ID. You never know what you will see while biking or hiking along the many great trails there. Until next week, happy birding!
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Paul Spear, Publisher, and Editor of Dig Imperial Beach