Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Merlins' appearance is rare treat for Ohio birders

Merlin nest with two chicks (one visible here) in Upper Arlington/Jim McCormac

July 21, 2019

Jim McCormac

Avid birder Leslie Sours was gardening in her Upper Arlington yard on a fine day in April when she was startled by a bullet-like bird whooshing over. Its emphatic yipping calls drew her eyes skyward before the bird appeared.

A merlin! These small but powerful falcons are uncommon in Ohio, with most observations during spring and fall migration. Small numbers spend the winter months in large cemeteries, where mature scattered trees mimic the savannas and open woodlands favored by this species.

Sours was surprised when a second bird joined the first. A male and female, and at a time when any wintering merlins should have departed. The birds’ fidelity to the neighborhood, and behavioral cues, suggested potential breeding.

The hunt for the nest was on, and Sours soon found it. High in the boughs of a nearby Norway spruce was an old crow’s nest, and the falcons had appropriated the flimsy stick nest.

It wasn’t long before the female merlin was spending most of her time hunkered on the nest, incubating eggs. About a month later, Sours spotted tiny white fuzzballs peeking over the nest’s rim — the merlins had spawned a pair of offspring.

Merlin chicks grow like weeds, stoked on a steady diet of songbirds. When mature, they’ll weigh about 6½ ounces, and be 10 inches long with a two-foot wing span. By the time that I visited on July 1, the young birds were near adult-sized and clambering about the nest and venturing onto nearby limbs. While we watched, the adult female rocketed in with a small bird — possibly a house sparrow — as food for the begging chicks.

By now, the young merlins are free-flying and learning the complex aerobatics involved with successfully pursuing and taking down lesser birds in flight. A merlin is a winged terror to the songbird crowd. Feeding almost exclusively on birds, a hunting merlin spots its victim from afar and swoops in with jaw-dropping speed. Like a feathered air-to-air missile, it strikes its quarry with great force. The impact produces an eruption of feathers and the impact trauma alone may kill the prey. If not, a quick bite to the neck vertebrae will.

Songbird enthusiasts might be horrified by the merlins’ dietary preferences but that’s nature, which is seldom Disneyesque. Merlins are the pinnacle of avian hunting prowess and they’ve been plying their trade for far longer than humans have been around. Outdoor cats and car strikes are a much greater threat to songbirds than are natural predators.

The overall number of wintering merlins has steadily increased in Ohio, as has the overall population that lies north and west of us. A locally famous wintering merlin spot is Union Cemetery off Olentangy River Road — less than two miles from Sours’ home. It would be interesting to know whether those birds — which include both sexes — are the Upper Arlington colonizers.

Up until the early 1900s, there might have been a small merlin breeding population in extreme northeast Ohio, but evidence is scanty. The first confirmed nesting was in 2009, when adults were seen feeding dependent but free-flying chicks in Lake County. The following year, a nest was found in a Mount Vernon neighborhood reminiscent of the Upper Arlington birds’ haunts.

Sours’ discovery marks the third documented Ohio merlin nesting and the best chance to document the entire event. Because of the nest’s visibility, Sours has been able to share the birds with many of the neighbors via spotting scope. Everyone is fascinated with the spunky little falcons, and seems honored to have them as neighbors.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at


Woody Meristem said...

interesting, and very similar to the merlins that nested in a suburban neighborhood at Williamsport, PA; even down to the birds nesting in a Norway spruce.

Gnat Bites On Dogs Images said...

interesting, and very similar to the merlins that nested in a suburban neighborhood at Williamsport, PA; even down to the birds nesting in a Norway spruce.

Donald Nixon said...

Great post about the merlin! I was lucky enough to have a similar experience in my central PA neighborhood (DuBois, PA) 3 summers ago. I got to enjoy watching that nest most of the summer as it fledged 3 young. Since then I’ve found a nest here in town each of the past 2 breeding seasons and started networking with people across PA who’ve had similar experiences. We’re up to over 65 nests sights observed since 2006. Most are in spruce trees growing in urban settings (parks, cemeteries, school campuses, golf courses, neighborhoods) as you described. Hopefully the info we’re gathering will be moved to the Erie Bird Observatory (working out of Presque Isle State Park) website eventually. Anyone interested in more info can email us for now at

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