I recently saw a falcon-like bird. The sky was overcast, with poor lighting, so I was unable to get any good markings, but I suspect it may have been a merlin.
The merlin is a falcon. Their scientific name is Falco columbarius. Falcons, or the genus Falco is derived from the Latin term falx, or “sickle” which is reportedly a reference to the sickle shape of the wings when the bird is in flight. The epithet columbarius is a reference to pigeons. That is because merlins in flight resemble pigeons. Many among us probably even learned the species as pigeon hawks.
Calling this species a pigeon hawk may lead some people to assume pigeons are the main prey item, but they aren’t. Merlins typically prey on much smaller birds such as horned larks, house sparrows, smaller shorebird, and other birds of similar size.
Merlins are a bit larger and heavier than the more commonly observed kestrel or sparrow hawk. They are often described as “dark and streaky” falcons. Falcons of course are known for their speed and maneuverability. They have long tapered wings and the tail tapers toward the tip. Male merlins are grayish while the females are brown, with both sexes having a heavily streaked breast and white bands on their tails. One other helpful characteristic is that merlins generally lack he “mustache stripe” that is so characteristic of falcons.
Merlins generally nest further north. However, North Dakota lies within their historical breeding range, and a few may still nest in the state. However, they winter in the south and west United States and Central America, so they are probably most often observed during the spring and fall migrations, even though a few sightings occur throughout the year.
Unlike most raptors we are familiar with that swoop down on their prey from soaring high above, or perhaps a perch, merlins have a rather unusual method of hunting. They will fly swiftly and low above the ground, flushing small birds from their perch. Once the small birds have flushed, the chase is on. If all goes well for the merlin, they will catch the prey in midair. Some merlins are even known to hunt in pairs. One flushes a flock of birds, and during all the confusion, the other swiftly goes in for the prey.
So as you travel about, be on the lookout for this interesting falcon. And if you should be fortunate enough to see one, it might be worth taking a few minutes to take a better look at it.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Dakota College at Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.