It’s getting late for the passage of falcons through our latitude. Peregrines, except for those that nest in Chicago, and Merlins have mostly left the area by mid-November, while some Kestrels may remain through the winter. But I want to focus on the Merlin (Falco columbarius), popularly known as the Pigeon Hawk, while it is still possible to spot one.
In my experience, the Merlin was always the most elusive of the three falcon species most often seen in northern Illinois. It was also the most difficult for me to confidently identify. Mid-sized – smaller than a Peregrine and larger than a Kestrel – it challenges a viewer to wonder, especially if it’s in flight: Could it be a small (male) Peregrine? Or is it a large (female) Kestrel? All three have the streamlined profile of a falcon, with angled wings and powerful, rapid flight. A female Merlin can be close in size to that of a male Peregrine, while a male Merlin nearly matches the size and weight of a female Kestrel.
If a Merlin is perched, it is not difficult to identify. It sits upright and the overall impression is rather dark and dusky, with brown and white streaked breast. The head, beak, and feet are much smaller than those of a Peregrine. It does not have the dramatic malar facial stripes of either of the other falcons nor the vivid color of a Kestrel
Several encounters this fall with Merlins have convinced me that the species can be identified easily in flight. On three different occasions I’ve stood and watched a Merlin in pursuit of other birds. What an aerial artist! The Merlin dips, swoops, climbs, dives – again and again, wreaking havoc among the pursued, its barred tail also giving a good visual clue to its identity. While a group of us stood transfixed one morning, watching a Merlin show at Deer Grove East Forest Preserve, I thought the bird had unlimited reserves of energy. It chased Blue Jays, dove at Northern Flickers, terrorized Red-headed Woodpeckers before it finally had enough and found a branch for rest, offering us all exceptional studies through a telescope.
Birds of Barrington | Merlin (Falco columbarius)
Peregrines are diving rockets (but are certainly capable of dramatic chases), and Kestrels hover characteristically over open field before stooping for prey. But neither performs quite like the Merlin.
The nesting season must have been a good one for Merlins this year. In October alone, the Illinois Beach Hawk Watch registered more than 450 migrating along the lakeshore from their breeding grounds in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. We see Merlins less frequently in the Barrington area.
According to Robert Ridgeway in his 1889 Birds of Illinois, the species was “resident, locally, throughout the State, but…comparatively rare.” Robert Kennicott reported Merlins nesting in Cook County in 1855. But the landscape has changed dramatically since those days and in the past century, our opportunities to watch this nimble and fascinating falcon have been confined mostly to spring and fall migration.
But nature is not static and the Merlin’s status locally may again be changing. In recent years they have moved in to city and suburban areas of Canada. In 2016, a weak fledgling was brought into Willowbrook Wildlife Center, indicating a local nest. Nearly twenty years ago, Steven D. Bailey advised in the Illinois ornithological journal, Meadowlark, that “Illinois birders should be on the lookout for nesting Merlins in the years to come. They don’t build their own nests but often choose old American Crow (and so also likely old Cooper’s Hawk) nests, often near water, especially wetlands. Merlins have become more common in winter in Illinois, as well, and no doubt they will be found nesting again in our state.”
That is a happy prospect for Merlin aficionados.
About Wendy Paulson
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.
Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.