Merlins fast and furious hunters

The merlin is a scrapper of a falcon known for picking on much larger birds and for eating smaller birds, which it snatches in mid-air during pursuits that are so speedy they’ll take your breath away.

“They’re just dynamite. A friend of mine has referred to their flight as dashing. They’re just really, really fast,” says Joe Meche, president of the North Cascades Audubon Society.

There are three subspecies of merlins — Taiga, Pacific (black) and prairie (Richardson’s) — in Washington state. Expect to find all three migrating through here.

But a small population seems to be hanging around Whatcom County through winter. Birdwatchers who participated in the Bellingham Christmas Bird Count in 2004-2006 found 11, 6 and 10 merlins in each of those respective years.

Meche believes that’s because the first successful nesting of merlins locally occurred on South Hill about six years ago and those birds are staying here.

Otherwise, the Pacific merlin (Falco columbarius suckleyi) nests in British Columbia and southern Alaska while the paler prairie merlin (Falco columbarius richardsonii) nests in the northern Great Plains. The Taiga (Falco columbarius columbarius) breeds in northern Canada to Alaska.

Merlins are usually 10 inches long with wing spans of 24 inches. All three subspecies have wings that are pointed and angular. In flight, they resemble American kestrels — only faster and more muscular. Telling the difference among the three is a matter of paying close attention to their coloring.

The Pacific merlin’s head and back are black, its breast streaked with lighter-colored feathers that move up into a white throat patch. The Taiga is lighter in color and has a bluish-black back, a pale line at its eyebrow, and white bands across its long tail. The prairie is a lighter version of the Taiga.

Merlins don’t bother building their own nest; they use other birds’ old ones, including those that once belonged to crows. The female lays up to five eggs and does most of the work of incubating them, while the male provides her with food. He spells her incubation duties while she eats.

Baby merlins are born covered in down and are helpless. They’re fed by their mothers, who give them the food brought back by the fathers. Their meals likely will be small birds. But merlins also eat rodents, reptiles, bats and dragonflies.

These small falcons will hunt in different neighborhoods as they search feeders for the birds that congregate there, often competing with sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks for the same tasty morsels.“They’re moving around. They’re looking for buffets,” Meche says.

Sources: “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,” by David Allen Sibley; Birdweb.org; “Birds of Whatcom County: Status and Distribution,” by Terence R. Wahl; Cornell Lab of Ornithology online