To see more profiles in the Birds of Ocracoke series, click here
Merlin (Falco columbarius)
By Peter Vankevich
A small stocky agile-flying falcon, males can be distinguished by their gray backs, females and immature birds are brown and all of them have streaky breasts. Like most raptors, the females of this species are noticeably larger.
They feed on smaller birds. On Ocracoke, this includes shorebirds–Yellow-rumped Warblers and in the village, European Starlings and House Sparrows. They will also take large dragonflies, small mammals like voles and occasionally reptiles.
Not only do they nest in North America, they also are a circumboreal species, and in Eurasia, breed from Iceland to Eastern Siberia.
In the Western Hemisphere, most winter primarily South of the United States as far south as South America.
Best Time to see: Merlins migrate through the Outer Banks starting in September, peaking in October. Some will linger into winter. Spring migration is not particularly notable. The Ocracoke Christmas Bird Count, which takes place at the end of December every year since 1981, usually reports three to six individuals with the high number of 10 in 2004.
Where: Campground, Springer’s Point, power lines, water tower in village, in flight amidst the dunes and the beach.
(audio provided courtesy of OhioLINK Digital Resource Commons)
Click here for the Birds of the Outer Banks checklist
The Merlin is one of three falcons that seen on Ocracoke. The others are Northern Kestrels and Peregrine Falcons.
Last fall, while observing migrating raptors passing through Ocracoke, 67 individuals were recorded. To read more about Ocracoke’s raptor migration, click here.
The name Merlin derives from esmerillon, the old French name for this species. They were formerly known as pigeon hawks, not because of a fondness for eating pigeons but rather for their flight pattern which some thought has a similarity.
With a wingspan of about 24 inches, the females of this species are noticeably larger than males, weighing eight ounces; males are closer to six ounces. When lighting conditions are good, males can be distinguished by their gray backs; females and immature birds are brown and all of them have streaky breasts.
The Merlins spotted on Ocracoke breed in the Boreal, or Taiga, regions of the eastern northern United States and Canada. They prefer relative open habitat with low to medium-height vegetation and some trees that makes Ocracoke an ideal habitat for them.
If you are out and about on the island, at a given moment during the day, you may see a Merlin dash past you displaying both speed and agility pursuing its prey which consists primarily of small birds. I have seen them on the island flying fast and low to the ground in hot pursuit of an unfortunate Myrtle Warbler. Fearless and feisty, they will chase off a Bald Eagle who strays into its territory.
Merlins do not build their own nests but will use an abandoned one made by a crow or hawk. An interesting adaptation change is that within the last 30 years or so, Merlins have started to nest in suburban and even urban areas, particularly in the northern Great Plains. Since the late 1970s,
According to the state’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Merlin nests are increasingly encountered across Maine in varied settings ranging from offshore coastal islands to northern interior forests and mountains.