The Return of the Merlin

Merlin jess digitally removed (Photo by Donald Drife)

Merlin jess digitally removed (Photo by Donald Drife)

The Merlin is a Blue Jay size falcon. The females are noticeably larger than the males. The males are more colorful possessing a blue-gray back as opposed to the brown back of the female. Like all falcons, they have pointed wings, that they beat rapidly, and a long tail. They lack the brownish color of a Kestrel and never hover to hunt. Their faint “sideburns” and the narrow tail-bands distinguish them from the larger Peregrine Falcon. The “sideburns” on Peregrine Falcons are distinct and their tail-bands are much wider than a Merlin’s.

Merlin showing jess (Photo by Joyce Drife)

Merlin showing jess (Photo by Joyce Drife)

The photographs are of a captive female bird kept at the Outdoor Discovery Center in Holland, Michigan. This group sponsors many fine educational programs for all ages including birds of prey photo shoots.

Merlins (Falco columbarius) are increasing their breeding range in Michigan. There are two areas near Grayling, Michigan where I regularly see them. However, I have not found a nest or seen young but the birds are around all summer.

Merlin captive female (Photo by Donald Drife)

Merlin captive female (Photo by Donald Drife)

Historically, they probably nested in the Upper Peninsula. The first nests found were in the mid-1950s. Their population crashed (along with most raptors) in the 1960s due to DDT and other pesticides. The first Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas survey, during the 1980s, recorded Merlins from 72 townships statewide. The second Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas survey, 2002 though 2008, recorded them from 231 townships. A nest was found as far south as Ottawa County. Old breeding records show that Merlins nested in northern Illinois in the early 1800s. Hopefully, this species will continue to expand its range into southern Michigan.

Don Drife

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Works Cited

Haas, S.C.G. Merlin (Falco columbarius). in A.T. Chartier, J.J. Baldy, and J.M. Brenneman, editors. The Second Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas. Kalamazoo Nature Center. Kalamazoo, MI., 2011. < /Portals/12/MBA2010/MERLaccount.pdf >.

Works Consulted

Clark, William S., Brian K. Wheeler. A Field Guide to Hawks: North American. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987

Cuthrell, D.L. Special animal abstract for Falco columbarius (merlin). Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Lansing, MI., 2002. <>

Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia): the “wind rattler”

Bladdernut Staphylea trifolia pods

Bladdernut pods

Bladdernut Staphylea trifolia buds

Bladdernut buds

One winter day, when I was about ten-years old, my father took me for a walk in Bloomer State Park. It was a cold, clear day with a slight breeze. We were walking quietly along a trail birding and heard a rattling sound. The sound came from brown, papery pods of a shrub that looked like an escaped ornamental. There were 100s of them hanging on striped branches. The rounded leaf buds were opposite and the twigs had false terminal buds. [Opposite buds are in pairs and false terminal buds can be at the ends of twigs but they have a leaf scar.] After returning home, I looked in The Shrub Identification Book by George Symonds and discovered that they were Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) pods.

Bladdernut Staphylea trifolia flowers

Bladdernut flowers

The following May we visited the Bladdernut colony again to look for flowers. The flowers are greenish-white bells that hang in panicles. A panicle is a group of flowers on a branched stem. Flowers occur when the leaves begin developing. They are a pretty sight in the springwoods. The opposite leaves have three leaflets and fine teeth.

Staphyleaceae is a small family of approximately 50 species worldwide. Michigan’s only member is the Bladdernut. Its native range in Michigan is south of Bay City. The seedpods are buoyant raising the question of their dispersal via water.

Bladdernut Staphylea trifolia twig

Bladdernut twig

This distinctive plant is great in the garden with its attractive flowers, interesting fruit, and striped twigs. It suckers freely and normally forms a dense clump. It grows in medium shade and does not do well at a dry location. Garwood and Horvitz report that this “is a self-incompatible temperate woodland shrub.” This means two plants are required for heavy seed production. However, they provide data that show some pods form with only a single plant. My single plant produces 10-30 pods a year. Bladdernut is best grown from seeds, but they are double dormant. This means that without treatment the seeds require two freeze cycles before they germinate. Seeds planted in the fall will emerge in the second year.

If you are walking along a river or in a floodplain look (or listen) for this plant. I love to find this plant. Maybe I’ll go to Bloomer Park and see if the colony still exists forty-three years later.

Don Drife

Works Cited

Garwood, Nancy C. and Carol C. Horvitz. Factors Limiting Fruit and Seed Production of a Temperate Shrub, Staphylea trifolia L. (Staphyleaceae).  American Journal of Botany, Vol. 72, No. 3 (Mar., 1985), pp. 453-466. Article Stable URL:

Symonds, George W. D. The Shrub Identification Book. M. Barrows and Co: New York, 1963. [This useful pictorial guide for identifying shrubs is still in print. The scientific names are a little dated but this is a minor detail.]