Our neighbourhood was taken over in the summer of 2019 by a mating pair of the “fighter jets” of the bird world. Two Merlin took over an old magpie nest. Watching these falcons rocket around and yell at each other was an entertaining daily occurrence.
Falcons, not hawks
There are five members of the falcon family in Alberta, four of which are found in K-Country. The Peregrine Falcon is mostly absent; it seems to prefer city high-rises to mountain cliffs. Of the four in K-Country, one (the Gyrfalcon) is a winter-only visitor. The smaller American Kestral prefers the eastern part of K-Country, which is more grassy and less forested, as it mostly eats insects.
That leaves the Prairie Falcon and Merlin as the two falcons you’re likely to see in K-Country’s heart. Both are bird killers. Merlins zoom around high in the tree tops – they’re capable of flying 75 km/hr – picking off songbirds in mid-flight. Based on the feathers that drop from their nests, it appears Warblers, Pine Siskins and Juncos are particularly easy targets. They don’t seem to bother hummingbirds, but they make whole areas rather barren of all the Mountain and Boreal chickadees. In cities (Edmonton in particular has a lot of Merlins), they devour House Sparrows like candy. Once upon a time, they were known as Pigeon Hawks, but in truth, pigeons and rock doves are too big for them to take down.
They like old magpie nests and to hollow out Witch’s Brooms. Near the nest, they are seriously noisy. When mom is in the nest, dad is never far away, and they both squawk at each other endlessly. The males and females are different colour and size. The female, which has a brown back and chest stripes, is 20% larger than the blue/gray toned males.
In June, mom is sitting on their nest, though you will see both male and female out regularly. The eggs hatch in early July. They start off being nothing but grey fluffballs with laser-focused eyes and an evil glare. By early August, there are 4-5 baby fighter jets following mom and dad for a while. Though they may have fledged, they are dependent on the parents for almost a month before becoming independant.
Possible winter residents, too
Depending on food availability, they may or may not migrate. Many city Merlins in Alberta seem to do just fine wintering on Bohemian Waxwings and those House Sparrows that never seem to leave. Winter bird density drops in K-Country, so they are less likely to stay.
Meet more of the critters of K-Country here!