The Merlin’s Magical Emergence

The merlin has become New York State's cover bird.

The first recorded hatching of merlins in New York State occurred in 1992, in a white pine on the shore of Spitfire Lake, in Paul Smiths. Someone noticed a pair of noisy birds near a nest and pointed it out to resident birdwatchers Sheila and Lew Rosenberg, who kept an eye on it.

“One day we went by in the boat and we saw these little white fuzzy things stick their heads up. And then we watched them for weeks,” Sheila recalls.

“These birds have probably been around since before 1992 but they just had never been seen. After that year, people began to see them,” she says.

And hear them. The boisterous little falcon sounds a little like a killdeer, except the high-pitched ki-ki-ki comes from overhead and is louder and more insistent. A whole family of hungry birds in a tree can make a real racket.

Fully announcing its own arrival, the merlin has gone from Adirondack rarity to ubiquity in two decades.

Merlins are not shy. The falcon has moved not only into the Adirondacks but into town. It appears to have a preference for old hawk nests in white pines near open water—which the Adirondacks provides plenty of—but it doesn’t mind settled areas. A bunch of merlins congregated this summer at Mount Pisgah, the village ski slope in Saranac Lake. The birds seem to have dispersed in the past week or two.

The merlin is a little larger than a kestrel, though less colorful and with a less distinct eye stripe and moustache. It is more like the larger peregrine falcon in habit, preying on smaller birds on the wing. Brian McAllister, naturalist at the Paul Smith’s College VIC, would watch merlins diving swamp sparrows in May, and birdwatchers in Saranac Lake saw a small falcon chasing chimney swifts at dusk.

In eastern North America, Falco columbarius is a northern-forest nester found mostly in the summer boreal woods of Canada. It migrates to southern coasts in winter. The bird didn’t even get a page in the first Breeding Bird Atlas of New York State, published in 1988. But in the second atlas, published in 2008, 131 nesting sites were counted, most of them in the Adirondacks. The merlin became the cover bird.

Curiously—unlike the fish crow, turkey vulture, tufted titmouse and other birds that are expanding their range northward into the Adirondacks—the merlin is expanding southward.

“Merlin populations declined across North America through the middle of the 20th century as a result of the use of pesticides,” the 2008 Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State reports. “Populations began increasing in the 1960s, and at the same time the breeding range expanded into the northern Great Plains. During this expansion the merlin began moving into urban areas to breed. It expanded its breeding range into northern New York and northern New England during 1992-2004.

“The results of the next Atlas project should prove very interesting.”

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