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.
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:
1009 Green Glen Drive, DuBois, PA 15801
Now’s the time to listen for merlins. Maybe you’ll find a nest!
(photo by Malcolm Kurtz, map from Don Nixon)