Magical Merlins

Merlins have been recorded nesting in Orangeville, Caledon Village and just south of Headwaters in Georgetown.

April 17, 2022 | | Notes from the Wild

Merlin the Magician was a shapeshifter gifted with supernatural powers. His namesake merlin falcons seem able, if not to change shape, to radically – almost magically – change their behaviour.

In Merlin’s day these speedy little falcons sat on the wrists of fine ladies of the court who used them to hunt skylarks. These days they are little known beyond the birding community, but these cousins of the famed peregrine falcons have a surprising story to tell.

Merlin female. Photo by Don Scallen.

Merlin female. Photo by Don Scallen.

For much of the 20th century, merlins were considered uncommon inhabitants of the boreal forest. Even in Algonquin Park they were rare until the late 1900s.

Then, in a biological blink of an eye, they burst from the wild north country to colonize the tame country of the south. In a few short decades they traded forest, lakes and Precambrian rock for towns, tarmac and turfgrass.

This evokes the arc of an old TV show – the Beverly Hillbillies trading the backwoods for a mansion in Beverly Hills and thriving, if rather unconventionally, in their new digs. Like the Beverly Hillbillies, merlins are comfortable in their radically new habitat – a near magical example of what biologists call behavioral plasticity.

But also like the Beverly Hillbillies, towny merlins retain some of their backwoods habits. They continue to nest in evergreen trees and, as in the north, they prefer to hunt small birds over open spaces. In the north those open spaces are lakes and forest gaps; in towns the openings are yards and parking lots. House sparrows sub in for the merlin’s warbler prey in the north.

Merlins have been recorded nesting in Orangeville, Caledon Village and just south of Headwaters in Georgetown.

Merlin male outside of Shopper's Drug Mart Georgetown. Photo by Don Scallen.

Merlin male outside of Shopper’s Drug Mart Georgetown. Photo by Don Scallen.

Merlin female atop utility pole in Georgetown. Photo by Don Scallen.

Merlin female atop utility pole in Georgetown. Photo by Don Scallen.

Merlin female close up. Photo by Don Scallen.

Merlin female close up. Photo by Don Scallen.

And what can we make of their seeming indifference to all those unusual creatures walking around on their hind legs on city streets? Perhaps they ignore us because the large mammals of the north like bears, deer and moose don’t threaten them. To merlins, we may be just another species of a big – and largely irrelevant – mammal.

About the Author More by Don Scallen

Don Scallen enjoys sharing his love of nature through his writing and presentations. Check out his blog "Notes from the Wild".

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