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Merlins and American Kestrels Compared

Merlins and American Kestrels Compared
by Matt Mullenix, (C) 2003, Baton Rouge, LA


According to some bird guides, there is little difference between a merlin and a kestrel beyond color. Kestrels are brightly-hued and merlins less so, but otherwise both are “small, buoyant falcons, easy to confuse.”


And sometimes this is true: In the Texas panhandle, for example, where wintering American kestrels and merlins of two subspecies (plus prairie falcons) all share the same sky, it can take a careful look to tell one from another. Some wintering kestrels are larger than jacks and almost as pale as prairie merlins. The constant wind and cold of the high plains mold local kestrels into hard flyers, and they hunt birds frequently. A small, pale falcon flashing through a flock of cowbirds at a distance could be either of three species.


But serious birders, banders and experienced falconers should all be able to “tell a hawk from a handsaw” and a kestrel from a merlin with a quick glassing of binoculars. From the falconer’s perspective, there are several important differences between American kestrels and merlins. Although both species’ target quarries and captive husbandry overlap, their hunting styles and natural history sit at opposite ends of a spectrum.


American kestrels hunt by ambush. This is not to say that under some circumstances they can not catch small birds in direct pursuit. They can, but it’s a tactic they rarely have to use. A low-altitude, clipping flight at feeding birds provides kestrels plenty opportunity to kill; brief chases at flushed singles can follow these sneak attacks, but that’s about as far as most kestrels will pursue.


Kestrels are thin-winged, flat-chested, under-powered and lack acceleration compared to merlins. I say that with much affection for them and with thousands of kestrel kills to prove these are not necessarily damning differences. Comparing a red-tailed hawk to a Harris’ or goshawk will conjure equally negative points of fact, yet we all know how good trained red-tails can be!


What a merlin gives you is raw power: lots of it. It brings an ability to negate wind as a factor, to stay airborne at a tremendous clip then gear down further at any time for more performance. One merlin can dominate an entire flock of frightened birds, directing its fate as a whole. The flock responds like bait fish to a barracuda and for precisely the same reason. Merlins demonstrate total mastery of their element.


A merlin boosts the energy of a hunt and also expands its range. Blackbirds balling up on the horizon can lure a hunting merlin half a mile into a pasture from a close chase at house sparrows along the fence. A few seconds can bring her back to your pinned sparrows with no loss of vigor. A merlin can be almost anywhere at once.


American kestrels, again much like red-tailed hawks, conserve energy in a hunt and pick slips with great care. Position is paramount; every advantage is considered and if available, used. Once committed to an attack, trained kestrels tend to follow through to the end. They will stoop into cover, chase birds on foot, bind to quarry twice their size and never let go voluntarily. They have small feet, but as written elsewhere, also have the strongest feet for their size. It is a simple fact that American kestrels hold starlings better than merlins, on average, and will gladly tackle larger quarry than will any jack.


The chief variable to chosing between a kestrel and a merlin may be your hawking land. If you live in open country, or have access at least to good pasture for cattle, a merlin can excel there. If you plan to hunt mostly in town or suburb, and especially if you plan to hawk from a car, I’d recommend the kestrel.


The consideration coming in at close second is your intended quarry. To snipe, dove, quail and open-country sparrows, merlins are best suited. For most blackbirds (Icteridea), either falcon can prove effective. Starlings in close are extremely vulnerable to kestrels; but in the open are best prey for merlins.


The same holds true for house sparrows, with this exception: sparrows in thick cover are better quarry for kestrels. This is the slip for which I feel the American kestrel is perfect. If approached much like rabbit hawking with a buteo (allowing the kestrel to pin birds in cover beneath a good perch), the falconer can arrange sparrow slips with high rates of success. This situation is so easy to create in almost every city — and inside the city limits — that those wanting to hawk house sparrows should seriously consider an American kestrel.


There is much room to expand on the above sketch. Neither merlins nor kestrels need be boxed into such a narrow comparison. Both have potential far beyond any one falconer’s ability to see or yet realize…But there is a lot to be said for trying!


Matt Mullenix is the author of American Kestrels in Modern Falconry (Western Sporting Publications) and a big fan of small hawks. He’s flown eight American kestrels (Falco sparverius), one European kestrel (F.tinnunculus) and (quite briefly!) two merlins (F.columbarius). He is proud to call Eric Edwards his good friend and has spent many happy hours in the field flushing birds for Eric’s gamey merlins.

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