Merlins in Winter at Greenlawn Memorial Park

Mausoleums & McKinley Memorial, West Lawn Cemetery, Canton, Ohio

Enter “How many cemeteries in Ohio” in the Google search box and the response will be 255. Ask the same question using the Find-a-Grave website and you will get 12039. The correct answer is between these two figures, and last year Columbus-based landscape photographer Randall Lee Schieber and I traveled more than 20,000 miles around the Buckeye State, researching and photographing the most beautiful, interesting, and historic cemeteries and burial grounds in our home state of Ohio for a new book, tentatively titled  Places of Silence: Ohio’s Cemeteries and Burial Grounds, to be published by Ohio University Press in Spring/Summer, 2023. Between us, Randy and I have visited more than 200 cemeteries in about 70 of the 88 counties in the Buckeye State.

Ohio cemeteries are treasure troves of  architecture and history, and they are also important sanctuaries for trees, shrubs, and many species of wildlife, including deer, raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, coyotes, foxes, groundhogs, chipmunks, and dozens of species of birds, one of which, a diminutive but deadly avian predator, is the subject of this article. 

Merlin in Distant Tree, Greenlawn Memorial Park, Akron, Ohio

The photo above was taken on February 15 at Greenlawn Memorial Park, a 68-acre cemetery in west Akron, Summit County. If you look closely at the tree silhouetted against the blue sky, you can see a bird perched in the upper center of the tree. 

Merlin, Greenlawn Memorial Park, Akron, Ohio

Not wishing to alarm the bird, which seen through binoculars was clearly a hawk, I inched forward in my SUV until the raptor was well-framed in the viewfinder of my Nikon D500, equipped with a Tamron 100-400mm zoom lens. This was my first sighting and photograph of a Merlin, Falco columbarius, which are becoming frequent winter residents of open cemeteries with tall spruce, pine and hardwood trees in northern and central Ohio, reminiscent of the open savannas and tundra further north in Canada and the northern United States where the Merlins nest and spend the warmer months.   

An adult Merlin is 9-12 inches long, slightly larger than its smaller cousin, the American Kestrel, which is 8-11 inches in length, but the Merlin is more muscular and 2-3 times heavier than the Kestrel, which only weighs 2 or 3 ounces.  “The Merlin is to an American Kestrel what a Harley-Davidson motorcycle is to a bicycle,” wrote bird experts Pete Dunne, David Sibley, and Clay Sutton in their 1989 book, Hawks in Flight.

Male Merlin Portrait, Greenlawn Memorial Park, Akron, Ohio

When I checked the recent bird sightings at Greenlawn Memorial Park listed on the eBird website, I noted that local birder Kathy Mock had observed as many as six Merlins during a single visit to Greenlawn, which is about a 20-minute drive from my home in Cuyahoga Falls. I visited Greenlawn several more times, and discovered that Merlins are fearless and generally quite tame, even allowing me to walk up to their tree and obtain a portrait like the photo of an adult male Merlin shown above. Occasionally, this handsome avian predator would engage in wing and tail calisthenics, revealing its striking plumage patterns, shown in the image below.  

Merlin Wing Stretch, Greenlawn Memorial Park

Unlike Kestrels, which prey on rodents, insects, lizards, or snakes and  are often seen hovering or perched on utility poles or wires, Merlins are dashing falcons that hunt birds on the wing, using speeds up to 30 miles-per-hour and spectacular aerial acrobatics to snatch a songbird, pigeon or flying insect (especially dragonflies) that is too slow to react. Columbarius in Latin means “pertaining to a pigeon”, a reference to the Merlin’s original North American common name of Pigeon Hawk, since the Merlin’s flight resembles that of a pigeon. “Merlin” derives from the old French esmerillon, the name for this species, and is not a reference to the wizard of Arthurian legend.  

My thanks to friend and expert bird photographer Jim Roetzel for alerting me to the Merlins wintering at Greenlawn Memorial Park in west Akron. To learn more about Merlins in Ohio, check out Ohio bird expert and photographer Jim McCormac’s many articles on Merlins in his excellent blog, Ohio Birds and Biodiversity. Most of these central Ohio Merlins were observed by Jim at Greenlawn and Union Cemeteries in Columbus, and in the Pickaway Plains near Circleville.   




This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Hello, Mr. Adams, I came across this post last evening. You probably receive information about the Akron Audubon meetings but, in case you are not aware yet have an interest, I will be doing a Zoom presentation for the next meeting on November 22nd (which is virtual) about my 5-1/2 years of observations of these Merlins and my article that was published in The Ohio Cardinal about the first documented nesting attempt in Summit County.

  2. Hello Kathy,

    Thanks for your note, and for all your hard work observing and studying Merlins over the past 5-1/2 years. I look forward to participating in your GAAS Zoom presentation on Merlins on November 22nd.

    Ian Adams

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