“The Near Silence of Incubation”

Coastal Forest Merlin female on the nest. Photo credit: Marv Breece
Photo credit: Marv Breece

It’s late May and the male Merlins have already located suitable nesting platforms to attract and house a female companion. Merlins do not create their own nests, rather they recycle nests that were constructed in previous years by Northwest Crows who will likely not return to them. Crow’s nests are a Merlin favorite, as they are plentiful and easy to find, and located in the forest canopy where nestlings are safe from ground predators until they fledge. Interestingly, before mating occurs, the female Merlin is observed to rely on the male for food by becoming sedentary, even though she is quite capable of hunting herself. This may be the female’s way of testing the male’s ability to provide for her and the nestlings after the eggs are laid and she is no longer able to hunt.

Laying occurs from late April through early May. Right now in your backyards, female Merlins are settled into their nests and have laid clutches of 3-5 eggs. The male Merlin hunts songbirds for both himself and his mate while she is mostly confined to the nest to warm the eggs. This incubation period lasts from 28 to 32 days, almost all of which is performed by the female while the male provides sustenance and protection for her.

Merlin Winter Prey

As Merlin sits in the pre-dawn conifer tree, it may be stretching, preening or casting up a pellet from yesterday’s late afternoon feeding. Taking flight, she or he heads to a favorite prominent perch or continues in transit to survey the hunting options. Actively looking it sees foraging, flying and perching birds around the compass rose.

During the winter migrant songbirds from the south are largely missing and so this falcon must concentrate on the remaining small to medium-sized resident birds. These will be augmented by those species that have migrated south from the boreal forest or tundra. In urban cities, residential areas and at bird feeders the most abundant and available birds are House Sparrows, House Finches, Eurasian Starlings, Pine Siskins, Song Sparrows and Rock Pigeons, to name a few. In rural places such as fields, marshes, water edges, mudflats and farmsteads Merlin may capture Dark-eyed Juncos, Blackbirds, Cedar Waxwings and shorebirds such as Dunlin, and others.

After finding Merlin sitting or flying on a potential (or happening) hunt, watch carefully as it maneuvers after and under its fleeing prey . This acrobatic, sizzling arrow will attempt to seize from the sky its next meal. How exciting can birding get, you ask? Its uncommon to witness the whole Merlin hunt, but if you do, it will forever be etched on your mindscape!