Merlins on Campus

Quick, grab your binoculars: a pair of merlins has taken up residence on College Street. These feisty little falcons migrate each year from southern wintering grounds to northern breeding grounds, where instead of constructing their own nests they reuse old ones built by hawks or crows.

Students Ben West ’16 and Andrew Haeger ’16 are among several members of the Bowdoin community who have been keeping tabs on the birds and their quest for a nest this spring. According to West, the merlins spent a few weeks testing out housing options on both sides of College Street near Moulton Union, before they finally settled on a vacant crow nest atop a tall pine in front of Ladd House.

Joining the merlin celebrities and their groupies on campus recently, Maine Audubon staff naturalist Doug Hitchcox captured some photos and videos of the male bird perching in the morning sunlight on a favorite branch high in the trees, just across the road from the newly selected nest:


Video and photos by Doug Hitchcox

Bowdoin’s merlins are among 100-odd pairs nesting in the state, according to Maine bird expert Peter Vickery. And actually, this isn’t the first time the species has nested somewhere on campus: the pines near Druckenmiller have hosted merlins for the past seven or so years. “Sometimes they make so much noise courting and begging that I have to shut my window to get work done,” said biology professor Nathaniel Wheelwright.

Those high-pitched calls (click hear to listen) are your best clue if you’re looking for a merlin. Even without binoculars, you can get a good view of this energetic bird – a mini version of its cousin the peregrine falcon – as it swoops around campus, possibly clutching a songbird or another hapless prey item in its bright yellow talons.

And if you keep watching, you may be in for another kind of spectacle. At one point during the recent photo shoot, the female merlin suddenly emerged from the nest and jetted toward the male, instigating a hasty get-together on the perch before flying off again. “Maybe they haven’t laid eggs yet,” West said. “They’d better get on that.”

If you’re on campus and keen to see the merlins, a word of caution: though the birds may seem unfazed by the bustle of human activity around them, keep in mind that excessive disturbance could jeopardize their breeding attempt.

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