Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Merlin - Falco columbarius
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General Comments The Merlin is a very feisty raptor for its size, and its dashing flight chasing down shorebirds and other avian prey makes it an exciting species to watch. Unlike the other two falcons on the Official List, Merlins were thought not to breed in North Carolina, nor anywhere near the state (on a regular basis); however, there was a suggestion of nesting at a site in the northern mountains in 2020 and again in 2021, and adults have occurred at several places in the mountains in 2022-23. It is mainly known as a winter bird near the coast and a scarce migrant everywhere else. Merlins are usually found in extensive open country, often near concentrations of shorebirds; but they also can be seen perched in lone treetops in fields, on telephone poles, or on other conspicuous perches. (However, they seldom perch on phone lines, unlike the American Kestrel.)
Breeding Status Probable breeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank SAB,S3N
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Transient, and winter resident in the eastern part of the region. Uncommon to fairly common fall migrant along the immediate coast, but uncommon during the winter (and spring); rare to uncommon in winter in the Tidewater area; elsewhere in the region, mainly a very rare to rare transient and winter visitor. Mainly from early Sep to early May; exceptionally to 16 Jun (at Wilmington). Peak counts: 16, Fort Fisher, 20 Sep 2004;
Piedmont Transient, with numerous winter reports. Rare fall and spring migrant, may be locally uncommon in fall around reservoirs that have mudflats with shorebirds (especially Jordan and Falls lakes). Very rare to rare in winter; no regular wintering areas known, and seldom if ever overwinters. Mainly from early Sep to mid-Nov, and mid-Apr to early May. Peak counts: 3, Jordan Lake, 23 Sep 1995; 3, Alexander, 17 Oct 1999.
Mountains Transient, with some winter reports. Very rare to rare fall and spring migrant; very rare winter visitor. Almost certainly a casual breeder, starting in 2020. Probably most likely to be seen from hawk watch sites, in Oct. Mainly late Sep to early May. Out of season were one seen and heard on Roan Mountain (Mitchell) on 18 Jun 2014, and one along the Blue Ridge Parkway at MP 357.5 (Buncombe) on 2 Jun 2017. One was quite early in fall migration on 21 Jul 2019 at Hooper Lane (Henderson). Most intriguing was the sighting of two birds appearing to beg food from a third bird, near Land Harbor Lake (Avery ) on 1 Aug 2020; did the species actually breed in that area? Additional records were made in that area in Aug 2020, further adding evidence of local nesting [Chat 85:81-85 link]. Also, in this same Land Harbor Lake area in 2021, four were seen on 27 Jul and three there on 23 Aug, adding extra evidence that the species has been nesting there for two consecutive years. Also, at Mount Mitchell SP (Yancey), an adult and three juveniles were seen on 7 Aug 2021; were these the same birds as from farther northeast in Avery? In summer 2023, adults were seen at four locales in the region -- Ashe, Avery, Yancey, and far south in Haywood; were any of these nesting birds? Peak counts: 4, see above; 3, see above; 2, Calvert (Transylvania), 10 Jan 1993; 2, Hooper Lane (Henderson), 8 Oct 2005.
Finding Tips Your best chance to see a Merlin is to visit the coast in Oct, especially after a cold front. Birds can be seen migrating southward along the dunes or along the barrier islands. The Bodie-Pea Islands area typically has a handful of birds all winter. When driving along the coast, such as along the Outer Banks, carefully scan the telephone poles and crossbars; Merlins and Peregrine Falcons frequently use these as perches. Inland, Merlins are most frequent around extensive open country, such as farm ponds and cattle feedlots; they may perch in lone trees in the pastures.
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Attribution LeGrand[2023-10-20], LeGrand[2023-03-23], LeGrand[2022-02-09]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.
NC Breeding Season Map
Map depicts assumed breeding season abundance for the species.