24 July 2022
Since the winter of 2016-2017 many of us have visited Schenley Park golf course at dusk from late December to late February to watch one to three merlins come in to roost.
Merlins (Falco columbarius) are small fast falcons about the size of pigeons, though pigeons outweigh them. Like their peregrine cousins, merlins declined because of DDT and their population retracted into Canada’s boreal forest. After DDT was outlawed, they recovered slowly and in 1995-2014 began to take up residence further south. Some began nesting in towns and cities.
This year it was Pittsburgh’s turn. On 18 March 2022 Malcolm Kurtz saw and heard two merlins vocalizing at Chatham University as if they intended to nest. Would they? Unlikely. Most eastern merlins nest in Canada. They had never nested in Allegheny County.
Four months later on 18 July Malcolm saw proof that they’d raised a family — a juvenile with parents at Chatham.
County record! Merlins are nesting in Pittsburgh!
Birds of the World, Merlin account explains: “Merlins do not build a nest and make few if any modifications to an old corvid or hawk nest. In cities, they nest in conifers in residential areas, school yards, parks, and cemeteries. High availability of safe nesting sites (corvid nests in spruces) and high prey abundance (house sparrows) appear to be two main reasons for urban populations of merlins.”
Yes, I’ve seen plenty of house sparrows in the merlins’ territory.
How long will the juvenile merlin hang around?
Again from Birds of the World, Merlin account, “Fledglings remain dependent upon adults and remain near nest sites for 1 to 4 weeks. They often hunt for dragonflies, which are abundant in July and August and may half-heartedly chase potential prey species or pigeons.”
Will the Chatham merlins be back next year? Perhaps nearby but not in the same nest. Merlins rarely use the same nest in two consecutive years.
Watch for Malcolm Kurtz’s article on the merlins in an upcoming issue of Three Rivers Birding Club’s newsletter, The Peregrine. Check out his photos on Instagram.
(photos by Malcolm Kurtz)
p.s. Sounds! Here are examples of what merlins sound like in their nesting territory. Be alert for these calls in your neighborhood March-to-August.
Alarm near the nest, Xeno Canto 666137:
Female calling after mating with male, Xeno Canto 642023:
Adults and begging juvenile, Xeno Canto 642023: