While enjoying the activity at his bird feeder a few weeks ago, a Beaufort, NC resident witnessed a distressing bird on bird attack. Most of us are aware that some birds such as hawks eat other birds, mainly songbirds, and this appeared to be a hawk on hawk situation. By the time the man ventured outside, the larger hawk, which we theorize to have been a Cooper’s Hawk, was gone and the smaller hawk, lay injured on the ground. The Good Samaritan scooped him up and transported him to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport for evaluation and treatment. It turned out to be a species that had never been admitted to our shelter before, because the only time we see a Merlin, which is a Falcon rather than a Hawk, in this area is when they are passing through during migration. You may be asking, what’s the difference between a hawk and a falcon? Falcons have notched beaks while hawks have a curved beak. Falcons also use their beaks to attack prey, while hawks use the talons on their feet to kill prey, so their hunting methods are completely different. Also, hawks are generally larger in size than falcons. A thorough examination of the admitted Merlin revealed a laceration under one wing and numerous puncture wounds from the larger bird’s talons. He was treated for shock and his injuries cleaned and dressed to prevent infection, as well as to promote healing. From the beginning of his stay with OWLS, he was a good eater (down-right famished!!) In the wild, Merlins eat a variety of birds from sparrows to quail, and large insects, such as dragonflies, don’t go unnoticed. After calculating that the time needed for him to recover and get back into shape for his return to the wild will be extensive, the decision was made to transfer him to Cape Fear Raptor Center for the extended stay he required. In addition, it will give him the opportunity to work with the Falconer they have on staff at their center. Merlins are small but fierce falcons who are powerful fliers. They look similar to the more common American Kestrel familiar to this area, especially in coloring, but the Merlin is broader and heavily built, with females stockier than males. Male Merlins are dark gray with a lighter chest that almost looks striped or mottled in dark brown. Females and immature Merlins are more brown all over than gray. A Merlin is 9 to 13 inches long with a wingspan of 20 to 29 inches. They have pointy wings and a medium tail that is dark in color and sports thin, white bands from rump to tip. Their eyes and beak are dark and their slender feet are yellow with black talons. This specific bird of prey has the least amount of markings than any other type of hawk or falcon. Merlins usually nest in forested areas and along waterway edges but have adapted to loss of habitat by moving into towns and cities up north. During migration, we may see them in our coastal regions where flocks of small songbirds or shorebirds reside. It would be very rare to see a Merlin nesting in eastern North Carolina because of their very northern breeding range. Even Ohio is considered south of its breeding range. It is interesting to note that after a male Merlin has wooed and won his mate with his “extreme” acrobatic displays, they look for a “pre-owned” nest together rather than build their own. They simply search out an abandoned crow’s, hawk’s or woodpecker’s nest and move in. The female usually lays 4 to 6 rusty brown eggs that are incubated for 28 to 32 days. In another 30 days after hatching, the young will fledge but still be dependent upon their parents for another four weeks or more. It’s tough out there for infant Merlins though, because statistics show that only one in three infants make it to adulthood. We, wildlife rehabilitators at the shelter, feel honored to have played a role in saving this one! Merlins have had a few nicknames since Medieval times and used to be referred to as Pigeon Hawks or Lady Hawks, although they are not hawks at all. They have also been called “The Falcon for a Lady” when used as a falconry bird because of its petite size. The greatest threats to Merlins are pesticide use, loss of habitat, predators such as larger birds of prey and speed injuries. Although they are reported as capable of the most agile aerial maneuvers of all hawks and falcons, they sometimes focus so intently on their prey when hunting that when they swoop in at top speed for the catch they have been known to suffer collision with an obstacle in its path. Merlins are powerful, straight path fliers who don’t understand the words glide or pause. The oldest Merlin on record is said to have lived 13 winters. That is one careful or lucky falcon that may have figured out the need to glide and pause occasionally!! Merlins are widespread during migration, but seeing them is very unpredictable, so when you are out for a walk or driving by and suddenly see a flock of birds burst into flight from a bush, tree or shoreline, you just might have a Merlin in the area. You will have to scan the sky quickly because they are so fast they will be out of range in just a few seconds. Good Luck!
best always and Happy Thanksgiving!!
author of “Save Them All“