I was headed to an area where a friend had seen a pair of bald eagles feeding on a road-killed deer when I spotted a small hawk up on a telephone pole.
Figuring it was a kestrel (a sparrow hawk), I thought that was unusual because kestrels are not normally found here during winter, especially a winter like the one we are having.
Lighting conditions were very poor but I put on a “sneak” with my vehicle and got a few shots, but not very good ones, before the hawk launched and headed to the next pole. This time I tried to get by him so the lighting was at least a bit better (not looking into the brighter sky), but it wasn’t any better so I headed down the road a ways and stopped to view what I had captured already on the camera.
Looking back, I noticed the hawk had again left his perch but this time was flying low, just above the road, right at me. He went by still low and right in the middle of the road (good thing I had pulled off onto the side!) and continued that way, until he suddenly flew up to another pole. Something didn’t look right for a kestrel; he seemed too big, his wings very pointed and he flew with an aggressive attitude.
I took a slow approach to this new perch and was able to get a bit closer and get a better view. This wasn’t a kestrel, it was a merlin! That’s a falcon, just like the kestrel but a hair bigger. That’s why his color seemed off and he allowed me to get closer than a normal kestrel would.
This was the first merlin I had seen, as far as I know. Because of the similar size and coloration I may have seen one in the past, at a distance, and chalked it up to being a kestrel.
This falcon likes open areas and likes to take small birds in flight, such as house sparrows and starlings (good bird!), but he will occasionally take mice, rats or even a rabbit. Like a true falcon, the merlin is capable of making quick and fast turns with incredible speed. He is also a pugnacious fellow and often harasses much larger birds, even eagles. Most birds do their best to avoid this aggressive character. I think it’s too bad we don’t have more of these little guys around to help reduce the problems caused by starlings and house sparrows.
The merlin is not a common bird in this area. It actually breeds farther north and winters farther south. Merlins do not build their own nests, they take over old crow or hawk nests. They are solitary birds except during the breeding season. The male and female both hunt for prey for their young and sometimes the pair hunts cooperatively, with one bird flushing the prey toward its mate. The merlin will also readily take prey that is flushed out by other causes; it can, for example, be seen tagging along after other hawks to catch birds that escape their attack.
In medieval times the merlin was popular among female royalty who used it to hunt small birds such as skylarks.
There is another small hawk that may be confused with the merlin and that is the sharp-shinned hawk. This guy is about the same size but has broader wings and the chest has horizontal, coarse streaks and bars whereas the merlin has vertical streaking. The sharp-shinned hawk also has a longer tail and lacks the “faint mustache” marking of the merlin.
I have gotten a number of calls recently about this small hawk hanging around folks’ bird feeders and killing some of “their” birds. The sharp-shinned hawk has a habit of picking up on the birds visiting bird feeders (we all have to eat!). They perch nearby and swoop in low, using whatever cover is available to keep them undetected by the feeding birds. Once this guy finds a good situation he will usually visit it frequently for a snack. And that is just nature’s way.
Although you may be upset that he has “nailed” one of your pretty cardinals, you must realize that you created that situation for him. With the harsh winter conditions we are experiencing, the birds really need our help — especially if you have been feeding them all along — so don’t stop feeding just because one of these guys may be taking a few birds. Those birds have learned to depend on your feeder during these rough times and taking it down to protect them from the sharp-shinned hawk will probably cause more loss than the hawk would.
One way to help those feeding birds is to provide cover for them, either by planting evergreens or shrubs near your feeders for the future or collecting Christmas trees after the holidays and tying them on stakes close by. (Just don’t put them so close as to allow squirrels to use them to jump to your feeder!) Evergreens allow good protection from a “little terror” when he swoops in on the feeder.
Personally I’m tired of all the political crap on the TV, which has become more of a “catalog” than a home entertainment center, so do like I do: Get out and observe nature. You may be surprised what you see, maybe a merlin or a bald eagle.
Doug Domedion, outdoorsman and nature photographer, resides in Medina. Contact him at (585) 798-4022 or firstname.lastname@example.org .