Merlin vs. Purple Martin: Warbirds In Action

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Steve Kroenke
Posts: 4339
Joined: Fri Nov 28, 2003 6:49 pm
Location: Louisiana/Logansport

Merlin vs. Purple Martin: Warbirds In Action

On the mornings of March 29 and 30, 2019 I observed something I have witnessed SO MANY times around our two purple martin colonies in northwest Louisiana: my colony and my neighbor Bob. I watched warbirds in action as purple martins were flying for their lives and a merlin was doing everything she could to take them! I just held my breath and watched in both terror and awe as two fast and agile “feathered jets” took to the sky in mortal combat! What an epic air battle! More on these two incredible merlin vs. martin events later.

Merlins are small extremely fast and maneuverable falcons that nest mainly in Canada though they are slowly spreading south and are now nesting in some northern states in America. These falcons are increasing in population and beginning to nest in urban/suburban locations just like the Cooper’s hawk and are posing a threat to martin colonies in those areas. A pair of merlins nesting near a large martin colony would be a formidable predator of these martins, particularly to the fledglings.

Many merlins migrate south and most spend the fall and winter months in parts of the Deep South, particularly along the coastal areas and in Central and north South America. When they migrate back to their breeding territories, they no doubt pass over many purple martin colonies, including ours!

The male merlin is only about 10 to 11 inches long while the female is larger and may reach about 13 inches in length. Merlins are small but have a robust profile with long powerful pointed wings; these falcons have a muscular chest. In raptor society there is often sexual dimorphism where the female is larger than the male. With the Accipiters, the sexual dimorphism is particularly noticeable with females being as much a third larger than the males. I have seen some female Cooper’s hawks that “towered” over smaller males!

Merlins are built for high speed pursuits and CHASE rather than make those famous dives like a peregrine falcon from great heights on a much lower flying victim. Merlins may come in low at just a few feet off the ground to attack martins at their colony site or ones that are flying low down. They often come over higher and launch blistering pursuits of martins through the sky that go on for several hundred yards. Multiple martins may be chased in individual attacks. Merlins will bank downward and to the side as they try to overtake a bird so there are short dives but nothing like that of the peregrine. Merlins have enormous stamina and will pursue a bird out in the open for long distances and keep up the pressure until the victim is worn down and caught or manages to elude the merlin with banking actions or dives into thickets or trees. Since merlins have long pointed wings, they hunt in the open so martins, swallows, swifts, long wing shorebirds like sandpipers, and any small bird flying in the open are likely targets. Martins DON’T plunge into trees or thickets to escape and merlins KNOW this! Merlins do not pursue prey into thickets or through lots of trees like an Accipiter hawk. Few small birds can outfly a merlin by speed alone though martins, swallows, and swifts are highly agile and can often out turn a merlin and eventually escape.

We live on major flyway for migrating Accipiters and merlins and I have seen NUMEROUS attacks by these raptors on our martins since starting my martin colony in 2005, possibly hundreds. Many Accipiters and merlins winter along the Gulf coastal areas and eventually head back north to their nesting territories. It seems like “GILLONS” of them pass right over our martin colonies in northwest Louisiana! When I lived in north Florida, I observed MANY attacks in that state too! I have sometimes seen multiple attacks on the same day by Cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned hawks and merlins, particularly during the main month of April as they pass over our martin colonies. By the first week in May, nearly all migrant Accipiters and merlins will be gone from our area though an occasional “late” merlin may still pass over during the middle of May.

Overall merlins are much faster than martins in level flight and have no difficulty overtaking martins in longer pursuits. I have observed martins that were over a hundred yards away from a merlin and flying as fast as they could and the merlin overtook them in a few seconds! From what I have observed, martins tend to be more maneuverable and can bank downward and to the side with incredible speed. These banking actions by martins make it difficult for merlins to snatch a martin in flight. As long as the martin KNOWS the merlin is attacking, then martins I have seen pursued have eluded the merlin by sharp banking actions. From what I have seen merlins have been successful when they attack martins and catch them off guard. The merlin may target a lone martin flying slowly in the sky and basically make a sneak attack. Other times a merlin may exploit the chaos of screaming martins scattering all over the area and catch one that has NO idea where the merlin is coming from—again element of surprise. Merlins bring out the very best in martin flying skills when escaping from an aerial predator. The martin’s speed and particularly its ability to bank sharply downward and to the side makes the martin a difficult prey item for merlins though they have much greater speed.

Though merlins are faster than martins in level flight, martins will still mob a merlin if given the chance. Martins will do this if they “know” the merlin is not actively hunting and will stay above the raptor and make short dives at the merlin while emitting their nasal anti-predator vocalization. These mobbing attacks are all bluff and the martins never strike any raptor. Also after a merlin has failed in hunting martins, climbs ups and leaves, martins will often join forces and mob the merlin.

Since starting my current martin colony in 2005 in northwest Louisiana, I have witnessed MANY attacks by merlins on our martins. The success of the merlins in catching martins has been extremely poor from what I have seen. However, I am observing MIGRANT merlins and not nesting ones. Nesting merlins would most likely be more persistent and be there all the time to hunt any martins. These merlins are probably more efficient in catching martins as they are hunting not only for themselves but their young, too.

At our current colonies in northwest Louisiana, I have recorded only seven instances where a merlin actually caught a martin and all these were surprise attacks where the merlin caught the martin off guard. In every other attack where the martins KNEW the merlin was after them, the martins evaded the merlin with incredible banking actions down and to the side. When a merlin caught a martin near my colony and took the martin to the ground, I managed to chase off the merlin and the martin escaped in four of those cases. Though merlins have deadly talons, they mainly kill their prey with their hooked beaks by tearing into the victim’s head/neck area. So if a merlin takes a martin to the ground, the martin may not be injured initially and sometimes can be saved if you can frighten the merlin off the martin. Accipiter hawks mainly kill with their talons and can do more damage to a martin quickly.

Merlin vs. Purple Martin: Warbirds In Action…Two Attacks In 2019

March 29 Attack

Morning time around our two large purple martin colonies in northwest Louisiana, my colony and my neighbor Bob, is active during the early spring. Martins are socializing, nest building and vocalizing loudly, all behavior we human landlords love to watch and hear and so do other “things”. These other “things” have entirely different intentions!

At around 7:30 am that day many of the martins in both our colonies emitted alarms cries, bolted from the nests, and started climbing. Other martins sitting on gourd/house porches immediately entered their nests. I knew the source of this terror was one of three raptors: Cooper’s hawk, sharp-shinned or a merlin. But where was it!

Then I saw what was causing all the consternation! It was a merlin and judging from the size I believe a female.

The merlin had apparently attacked some martins out over a nearby pasture in back of our houses. The merlin had pulled up into a climb and was powering up after some martins that were at the same time climbing as fast as they could.

The merlin was flying in a spiraling maneuver while the martins emitted numerous alarms cries and continued their fast ascent. The merlin was actually ringing up after the martins and I have seen this attack strategy several times in the past. Sometimes a merlin and the martin or martins would disappear from my sight!

Then I noticed another lone martin flying in a fast twisting action away from the merlin and the other martins. The merlin apparently noticed the same thing! Never leave the safety of the group and present yourself as a single target when a merlin is pursuing!

Without hesitation the merlin abandoned the climb and streaked like a rocket after the lone martin which was maybe a hundred yards away. Martins are usually no match for merlins in level speed marathons though I have seen several “rare” martins out fly a merlin in a flat tail chase. However, merlins can select a martin literally hundreds of yards away and flying at fast as he/she can and often overtake the martin within seconds!

The martin seemed to “crawl” through the sky and the merlin quickly overtook the martin which banked straight down in a violent maneuver and the merlin did the same thing but was unable to snatch the martin out of the air. The merlin pulled up but stayed right above the martin which was still flying wildly in an erratic manner and trying to gain altitude.

Again the merlin attacked the martin from above and martin performed the same aerial maneuver which brought martin closer toward the ground. And then I believe I knew what the merlin was trying to accomplish: push the martin to almost ground level and prevent the martin from banking down any farther. If the martin can gain altitude ABOVE the merlin or keep banking downward, then the martin has a better chance of escaping.

The merlin continued to stay above the martin as both predator and prey spiraled close to the ground in a twisting chase. The merlin couldn’t connect with the martin and the martin couldn’t bank downward anymore! It was now a pursuit of pure speed and agility at low level! Which bird had the most stamina and determination!

And then I quickly lost track of the duo as the merlin was pursuing the martin in a flat out tail chase rather low down near the edge of a tree line along the pasture and both disappeared from sight. I never knew what happened after that! But I bet the martin got away!

March 30 Attack

The next morning, March 30, I believe a different merlin made an appearance and this one was definitely a female. She had a hunger and wanted fresh martin meat for breakfast!

The merlin came over at about 100 yards up and was ready to hunt! Her body was slim and her long pointed wings curved back like sickles. Her appearance had turned both our martin colonies into a state of total terror. Martins were emitting loud alarm cries as they scattered in all directions and many were climbing as fast as they could into the sky. Other martins smartly entered their gourds and house compartments to wait out the attack.

Multiple martins had fled out into the nearby pasture where the previous morning attacks occurred and the merlin was closing in rapidly. All I could do was watch as merlin and martins met in an epic dogfight!

The merlin quickly isolated one martin that was maybe 100 feet off the ground and desperately trying to escape. When martins KNOW a merlin is closing in they may start flying in a twisting almost tortured flight pattern to perhaps confuse the hunter before the martins execute their escape strategy. The merlin closed in and was almost on the martin when the martin did what they always do: the martin banked sharply downward while the merlin did the same thing but couldn’t connect with her victim. This is a fast maneuver that makes it extremely difficult for a merlin to reach out and grab any martin.

But the merlin was not deterred…yet. She went after another martin which at first tried to out fly her in a flat out tail chase. NO WAY!

The merlin quickly overtook the martin which violently banked downward and the merlin was unable to follow the martin and pulled up after making a feeble attempt to catch the martin during the banking action.

But when the martin accelerated lower down and took off after the sharp turn, the merlin was right on the martin’s tail again! The martin banked to the left and right in an erratic flight pattern as the duo “danced all over the sky”! The merlin couldn’t match the martin’s quick turning actions and finally gave up the chase.

The merlin then climbed up higher in the sky and started flying around looking for more vulnerable martins. Merlins may not give up easily and continue to pressure martins until a vulnerable one is located and caught. However, other merlins may not be that hungry to continue persistent chases and give up rather quickly. All our martins were either high in the sky or others where safely hidden in their gourds and houses! No chance to get these and the merlin disappeared to the north. She would probably look for more martin colonies as she headed to her breeding territory!

After the March 30 attack, many more merlins assaulted our martin colonies during April. It was Hammer of the Gods! Mighty Thor, Viking God of power, thunder and war hurled his magical battle hammer through the Cosmos as martins fled for the lives while merlins tried to hunt them down! But I never saw a single kill and the martins managed to out maneuver these falcons that seem to fly at the “speed of light”! Almost every day in April, I heard the bloodcurdling screams of terror coming from hundreds of martins in our colonies as they streaked up into the sky at the approach of a merlin or an Accipiter hawk. April is the main month for migratory merlins and Accipiters to pass over our colonies on their journey north to their breeding territories.

The last merlin attack I witnessed on our martins in 2019 occurred on May 1. A female merlin streaked over our two martin colonies and tried to snatch a martin out of the air. She missed as the martins out maneuvered her with incredible banking actions downward and she kept on going north!

I observed numerous merlin attacks on our martin in 2019 and didn’t see a single successful kill! Though the martins couldn’t outfly the merlin by speed alone, they were able to out maneuver this incredibly fast raptor with sharp banking actions down and to the side and eventually climb higher up and to safety. As long as the martins saw the merlin coming in, they put on a dazzling aerial show to escape. Of course, some of these attacks continued until out of sight and I never saw what eventually happened. But of those I observed from beginning to end, the martins won the dogfight!
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300+ pairs of martins each season
Steve Kroenke
Posts: 4339
Joined: Fri Nov 28, 2003 6:49 pm
Location: Louisiana/Logansport

Hey Rob,

Glad you enjoyed the article! I have posted a number of articles about martins and raptors on the Forum, including ones involving Accipiter hawks and martins.

I have had success using martin and mourning dove decoys to deflect attacking raptors AWAY from the real martins. I have watched numerous Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks and merlins and several "rare" peregrines hit my decoys. I place my decoys on poles and scatter them around the perimeters of both our martin colonies, mine and my neighbor Bob. Unfortunately, the decoys do nothing to stop the resident Cooper's hawks from catching MANY martin fledglings each season AWAY from our colonies. We lost a lot of martin fledglings during June and July this year to the hawks.

It is both exciting and terrifying to watch predator/prey interactions between martins and raptors! And it is most exciting when a martin puts the Grim Reaper to shame with superior flying skills!

PMCA Member
300+ pairs of martins each season
Posts: 773
Joined: Thu Jan 31, 2008 9:19 am
Location: Gladewater, Texas

We had a Merlin here last year. He was very fast and agile. It seemed he preferred smaller birds than Martins.

He would zip across the back yard and you would see a puff of feathers appear in the air & another song bird bit the dust.

The resident blue jays were not scared of the Merlin and would chase him and try and take his kill away from him.
2008 - 33 PAIR - FLEDGED 96 YOUNG
2009 - 51 PAIR - FLEDGED 166 YOUNG
2010 - 45 PAIR - FLEDGED 146 YOUNG
2011 - 33 PAIR - 128 HATCHED, 97 FLEDGED
2012 - 37 PAIR - 119 HATCHED, 101 FLEDGED
Black Jack
Posts: 68
Joined: Mon May 06, 2019 4:37 pm
Location: NC

Is it any wonder I get a stiff neck by looking at these Martins fly!
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