ATHENS, La. (KTAL/KMSS) — When everybody knows you’re obsessed with birds, you often get the question: what’s your favorite bird?  My usual answer is fried chicken.  But some people don’t care for perfectly good jokes.  So when they press me for a living example instead of a culinary one, I always exuberantly give my actual answer: the Merlin (Falco columbarius).   

Perhaps you have the same response I usually get: what’s a Merlin?   

Merlin (Falco columbarius) image by John Dillon.

The Merlin is the second-smallest falcon in North America.  And they’re incredible.  To alleviate possible confusion, the smallest North American falcon is the American Kestrel, what John James Audubon referred to as the “American Sparrow Hawk.”  Although many people today still call kestrels “sparrow hawks,” that moniker also commonly applies to the Sharp-shinned Hawk, which is another small raptor but quite unrelated to falcons.  Regardless, the Merlin is not generally referred to as a “sparrow hawk,” which is odd because it loves to eat them as well as other small songbirds.   

The Merlin’s name actually comes from the Old French “esmerillon,” which meant “small hawk.” This, too, is a bit odd in today’s modern, DNA-driven taxonomy of ornithology because falcons are definitely not hawks.  They’re not even related to hawks.  In fact, falcons aren’t related to other raptors at all.  Not eagles, kites, none of them.  Their closest relative?  Are you sure you’re ready?  Parrots and parakeets.  Yep.  The DNA research proved this a few years back.  Falcons are basically death parakeets.  Polly want some fava beans with a nice chianti?   

Although none of them are green, Merlins come in three colors that vary according to geographical distribution, although all are the same species. 

The “Black Merlin” winters along the Pacific coast. 

The “Prairie Merlin” is a beautiful sky blue or, in females, a light gray with mostly blue tail. 

But the version we typically get in Louisiana is the “Taiga Merlin,” which has a dark, slaty blue dorsal side in males that is charcoal gray in females, so pretty much between the colors of the Black Merlin and the Prairie Merlin.  The underside or ventral side has streaks that vary from dark to reddish brown.  And they have bright yellow feet like all North American falcons.   

Merlins migrate through Louisiana in spring and fall and breed across Canada and Alaska. They’re also regular winter residents in the southern half of the state.  In North Louisiana, Merlins are regular but somewhat scarce in winter, always preferring wide open expanses of pasture or agricultural land where they do their very impressive hunting.  Finding one always excites me greatly, although it’s easy to first try to turn the only slightly smaller kestrel into a Merlin.  Kestrels, however, are dainty flyers.  They’re someone nervous, always flicking their tails and not letting humans get very close at all.  By contrast, Merlins are almost fearless.  On some occasions, I’ve gotten just 20 or 30 feet away.  Merlins are also ridiculously powerful in flight, not dainty like kestrels.  One of my birding compatriots likes to say, “If you see a falcon riding a Vespa, it’s a kestrel.  If you see a falcon riding a Harley, it’s a Merlin.”   

Merlin (Falco columbarius) image by John Dillon.

So, what does that mean exactly?  Well, in the falcon world, Merlins hunt just a bit differently than their cousins.  Kestrels often hover in the air while watching small prey like insects, then gently swoop down and scoop them up.  Most nature lovers know from Discovery Channel programs that Peregrine Falcons are the fastest animals on Earth, falling out of the sky at speeds over 200 mph in order to snap the spines of prey like waterfowl or pigeons.  Impressive?  Absolutely.  But I get more impressed by what Merlins do.  

Merlins, while not quite as fast as peregrines, use a different tactic.  They are the sprinters of the bird world, that is if you took an Olympic sprinter and strapped a jet pack to him.  Merlins begin their hunt from a high perch and fly out, away from an open field full of small songbirds in order to make a long approach.  As they near the birds, they drop in elevation to just a few feet above the ground and pump their wings with amazing strength and then turn on the afterburners and literally double their speed, all on a dead level and almost instantaneously.  The birds scatter in every direction, and the Merlin shoots past them and steeply banks up and either to right or left as it picks out which flushed bird to chase. It then comes down from its high bank, levels out, gains incredible speed again, and goes in for the kill by grabbing the songbird out of the air.  It then finds a suitable perch for dinner. 

So, how fast are we talking?  First, let’s talk about the speed of peregrines.  Their legendary speeds are calculated from dives or stoops as they fall out of the sky like a bullet.  But normal “cruising” speed?  For peregrines, it varies from about 22mph to 44mph, with a mean of just over 30mph (  Merlins are the second fastest bird.  Their cruising speed varies from about 18mph to 46mph with a mean of about 28mph, all of which was determined by using radiotelemetry.  But when hunting, Merlins can reach speeds of over 70mph.  You can watch a good video of a Merlin used in falconry at the link provided, but keep in mind that falconry birds will not actually hunt as fast as wild Merlins.  Maybe I could train one to bring me some fried chicken.   

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