By David Cronenwett
Often neglected among Montana’s pantheon of raptors is the Merlin, Falco columbarius. Part of our lack of appreciation towards them stems from difficulty in identification: Merlins usually don’t have the strong facial features of others in the Falconidae family and have an overall brownish appearance, problematic to ID under some circumstances. So, these guys unwillingly endure the moniker, “some kind of brown hawk” much of the time.
However, Merlins are not a hawk (which would be in the Buteo or Accipiter genera) but the second-smallest falcon in the state. This fact doesn’t appear to dampen their aggression in any way; they will harass and prey on other birds from sparrows to pigeons with great zeal. All falcons have the classic delta-shape wing and other adaptations for speed. It should be remembered that earth’s fastest animal is a falcon, the Peregrine, capable of 200 mile per hour dives. I find the most interesting evolutionary manifestations to be falcons’ neurological-optical systems, which capture, transmit and interpret images at a rate impossible for us to imagine and effectively slow down time for the raptors.
Merlins are year-round residents of Montana. Sexual dimorphism (differences between the sexes) is mostly in size, with females notably larger than males. This is typical in falcons allowing them to hunt different-sized prey, thereby increasing caloric intake while decreasing the necessary size of their territory. There are three subspecies of Merlin in North America; ours is the Great Plains variety, Falco columbarius richarsoni, generally a lighter version of the Northern and Coastal subspecies.
Like others of their kind, Merlins are highly adaptable in terms of habitat use and prey selection. While many guidebooks state some pretty specific requirements, the birds are capable of living nearly anywhere other than arid deserts or very dense forests. And, although birds make up the bulk of their diets, they are not beneath consumption of larger insects or smaller mammals. An example of Merlin-adaptation is their recent emergence as an urban hunter in several Montana cities. A keen birder will look for areas with plenty of roosting/nesting sites (buildings, parks, etc.) and an abundance of pigeons. An unlucky rock dove, or Eurasian Collared dove will stand little chance against a determined Merlin. The falcons will often attack from above, with the sun at its back, in a surprise maneuver. If they hit their prey at high-speed, often you can see the telltale “poof” of feathers upon impact, quickly followed by decapitation. Merlins use a notch in their short, powerful bills called a tomial tooth to sever the spinal cord and bring prey to the ground.
What I personally enjoy about seeing Merlins and other raptors in the city, besides their self-evident beauty, is how they make predation visible to us. Its common for people to think of nature and its essential or distasteful functions as existing “out there” in the mountains somewhere. But watching bird parts fall from the sky from a Merlin strike is an eye opening experience, especially in the urban environment. Indeed, the predator-prey relationship, one that drives biological systems, is always close to hand.
Walking to the post office the other day, I hear some animated “kee-kee-kee!!” calls, high in the old cottonwoods of Choteau. Stopping to look up, a Merlin descends quickly to the ground, grabs a large vole-like creature, and takes off…followed by two, very agitated American Kestrels. The birds fly four feet over my head and disappear into the canopy. Now fully roused from my morning stupor, I am inspired to look for wildness and beauty closer to home.