Hey guys, welcome back! Today, our first falcon! Unfortunately, I do not have a picture of today’s bird. Sorry guys! Today we discuss the Merlin, a medium-sized falcon common throughout the western U.S and Atlantic coast in winter, and central and northern Canada in summer. Much of the central U.S. is only visited by the Merlin as it passes through on migration.
Like other falcons, the Merlin is easy to discern from a hawk. They are typically more slender, and have long, pointed wings. The Merlin, like its cousins also has the distinctive falcon “mustache” but they are much more faint than on other falcon species, instead, look for their trademark light-colored “eyebrow.” Flipping through a field guide, you may notice that hawks and eagles are next to each other, but falcons are separated by a number of birds (gulls, owls, woodpeckers to name a few.) What gives? Well, despite looking and behaving very similarly to hawks, falcons are not closely related. In fact, taxonomically, they are more closely related to parrots than hawks and eagles. It’s a good example of convergent evolution.
Most Merlin I’ve seen have been during the month of September, prime raptor migration. They’ve been flying over while journeying toward their wintering grounds. Only once did I see one perched and hanging out. It was in early spring while working at Central Park. My colleague Chris and I were doing the rounds, when we saw a raptor very low circling. We could tell right away by the silhouette that it was a falcon. I guessed Merlin because of size and coloration (the only other two falcons found in NYC are the Peregrine which is much darker, and the American Kestrel which is a more rusty color.) It landed in a tree nearby and we walked up to it, careful not to get too close. It was later in the afternoon, so we have a beautiful later afternoon sun shining right on him. We could see his (or her) weak mustache, and trademark eyebrow. It was a Merlin for sure! He sat there for quite a while and we just watched. After probably 15 minutes, it flew off. It was then that we realized just where he had been perched. About 30 feet away from the tree, is a statue called The Falconer! Chris still tells that story to this day! It was certainly a birding moment I’ll always remember. I’m glad he got to experience it with me.
Speaking of falconry, Merlin used to be nicknamed “lady hawks” as they were popular with female falconers back in the day. In fact, allaboutbirds.org tell me that even Catherine the Great and Mary, Queen of Scots used Merlins for sport hunting! That will about wrap it up for today. Hopefully my story made up for the lack of photos. See you all next time when we talk about one of my favorite birds (I have a lot of favorites), the Brown Thrasher! See you then!