Outdoors column: Merlin experience proves to be pretty much true

John Pitarresi
| Special to the Observer-Dispatch

Earlier this year, Ronnie and Debbie Evans, friends and neighbors, told me they had a merlin nest in the spruce tree next to their house.

I didn’t believe them.

“No,” I said with great deal of confidence. “There are no merlin nests in New York state.”

I used to be a know-it-all. I still am, but I’m a bit less of one in my old age, and I’m much more willing to listen to the opinions of others. However, I had been told many years ago by someone I thought would know that there were indeed no merlin nests in the state. In fact, my copy of The Atlas of Breed Birds in New York State doesn’t list merlins.

The Evanses were sure, though. They had dead songbirds all over the place, for one thing. Okay, but our neighborhood has been patrolled by a pair of Cooper’s hawks for years. However, Ron said the birds’ calls matched those he had listened to on line. Well, yes, but maybe he got mixed up. It seems to me as if every hawk species has a call that starts with “K” and ends up sounding like “kik-kik-kik” or “kak-kak-kak” or “keerrrr.” As it turns out, merlins don’t sound like that. To me, they sound like annoyed backyard birds – “kee-kee-kee.” Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website describes their voices as “shrill, chattering.”

In any case, I left the Evanses convinced they didn’t have merlins in their tree.

Merlins are falcons, slightly larger than the familiar kestrel and smaller than the rarer Peregrine falcon and feeder skulking Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks. They used to be known as pigeon hawks, but that name is politically incorrect now. Audubon called them that, but I think they had the name long before his time. Some called them “lady hawks,” supposedly because they were favored by female falconers during the Middle Ages. They are not much more than a foot long, with a two-foot or more wing span. They are kind of chunky, and are darkly streaked underneath. Like most wild animals, even those that are considered to be vegetarians, they eat whatever they can catch, including large insects and small mammals, but mostly they chase small birds.

As it happened, a couple of weeks after that conversation, I was sitting on my brother’s deck – less than a half mile from the Evans house – when I saw a small hawk flying toward me. It was an odd size, not as small as a kestrel, much smaller than a Coopers hawk. It had a dark feather pattern that seemed unique, and its rapid-wingbeat flying style was different than anything I’d seen before. That bird went straight over my head and over the house.

“What?” I thought. “Could it be? That might have been a merlin.”

Well, yeah, it might have been, and it probably was, the Evanses probably were right, and I probably was wrong.

I didn’t mind being wrong, but how could it be? Here’s how: I didn’t think to consider my atlas was published in 1988, and that Mother Nature rarely stands still. Merlins are indeed listed in the atlas that was compiled between 2000 and 2005, but I didn’t know that until just the other day.

I did some additional research – today that often means you Google a subject and view as authoritative the first reference you come across, but I did do more than that. I also called Matt Perry, naturalist at Spring Farm Cares and one of the moving forces in the Utica Peregrine Falcon program downtown. He told me merlins are increasing in numbers in our area, and that confirmed nesting has taken place in Oneida and adjacent counties. He said they do like to nest in spruce trees – they don’t make their own nests and use abandoned crow or hawk nests – but so do Cooper’s hawks. The merlin call is pretty distinctive, however, so that said something to me. Perry also told me that he had seen a few at the farm, including one that was having a duel with a Cooper’s hawk, and that there should be quite a few migrating through the area right about now.

Merlins, in fact, like almost all raptors, have made a sensational comeback all across their wide range since the 1960s, when pesticides had helped eliminate or greatly reduce their numbers.

And here is something allaboutbirds.org had to say:

“Merlins are increasingly breeding in towns and cities, where they often take over crow nests in conifers planted in residential areas, schoolyards, parks, and cemeteries.”

So, maybe, or probably, these birds have joined deer, coyotes, skunks, woodchucks, opossums, raccoons, foxes, chipmunks, gray squirrels, red squirrels, porcupines, fishers, red-tailed hawks, Coopers hawks, and I don’t know what other critters in storming through our neighborhoods, many of which were once thought of as urban wastelands but that are obviously now viewed by wildlife as nature preserves.

So, the story is, the Evanses were right and I was wrong, and if you see a fast, handsome bird flying through your yard, it might indeed be a merlin. That would be a cool thing.

Write to John Pitarresi at 60 Pearl Street, New Hartford, N.Y. 13413 or [email protected] or call him at 315-724-5266.

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