Listen For Merlins Nesting Near You

Merlin family at Chatham University, Pittsburgh, PA, July 2022 (photo by Malcolm Kurtz)

25 June 2023

Last year Malcolm Kurtz found the first recorded merlin nest in Allegheny County when he heard them on Chatham University’s campus. They were easy to find because merlins are extremely vocal during the breeding season, especially late June through July when their young beg loudly. If you recognize the sound you may discover merlins nesting near you. In Pennsylvania this is a very big deal and Don Nixon, who tracks Pennsylvania’s merlins, wants to know about it.

Merlins (Falco columbarius) are small, streaky, dark, very fast falcons about the size of pigeons who, after the DDT crash, did not nest in Pennsylvania for over 30 years. When they returned they chose old unmodified crow or hawk nests in conifers in forests, cities, residential areas, school yards, parks, cemeteries, and golf courses.

Don Nixon has seen merlin numbers grow quickly in recent years and writes:

  • We now have over 100 documented merlin nests across Pennsylvania since 2006.
  • Nest sites stretch from a repeatedly used area at Promised Land State Park in the Poconos to a golf course in Somerset.
  • Nests have been reported in 24 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.
  • Counties reporting nests for the first time in 2022 include Allegheny (Malcom’s nest), Blair, Cameron, Clarion, Columbiana and Somerset. 
  • This year Lackawanna County is already reporting its first nest.

Don publishes an annual PA merlin map after the breeding season, 2022 shown below. The dots appear clustered because there are few observers.

Pennsylvania merlin nests in 2022 (map from Don Nixon)

Since merlins don’t use the same nest site in consecutive years these dots don’t tell you where to find merlins this year. Instead you’ll have to listen for them. The two most common calls, described by Birds of the World, are:

  • Ki-Ki-Kee (Kek-Kek-Kek) given in courtship displays, territorial or other aggressive encounters,
  • Food Begging Whine: a monotonous call, given by female soliciting food transfers from male. Sometimes given after copulation. Also given by nestlings but softer and quicker.

Here are three examples:

Alarm near the nest, Xeno Canto 666137:

Female calling after mating with male, Xeno Canto 642023:

Adults and begging juvenile, Xeno Canto 583041:

If you hear these sounds look for merlins. If you heard them in Pennsylvania, Don Nixon wants to hear from you. Add your own dot to the PA Merlin Map. Contact Don at:

Don Nixon
1009 Green Glen Drive, DuBois, PA  15801
814-661-5944 (cell)

Now’s the time to listen for merlins. Maybe you’ll find a nest!

(photo by Malcolm Kurtz, map from Don Nixon)

6 thoughts on “Listen For Merlins Nesting Near You

  1. Kate,

    Thanks for the excellent post to spread awareness! I’ll keep you updated on any response I get.

  2. Kate,

    I just got pictures of the male standing watch over a nest in Mercer County. I used your post to guide a local birder in this evening. She played the calls from your post to the landowner who confirmed he’s been hearing the calls quite often for a while!

  3. I just encountered a pair of Merlin’s while walking on Water St along the Connewango Creek in Warren. They were flying back and forth across the creek between Beaty Field and backyards on Water st.

  4. For the past 3 days there has been a pair of merlins in my backyard and surrounding neighborhood – Altoona, Blair County.

    1. Great news, Ann! Don Nixon, mentioned in the article, would love to know about them. I’ll give him a heads up but he’ll want to hear from you for more details. Contact him at:
      Don Nixon
      1009 Green Glen Drive, DuBois, PA  15801
      814-661-5944 (cell)

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