Scientific Name: Falco columbarius
Alternate names: Pigeon Hawk
Size: Length 24-30 cm; wingspan 53-68 cm;
weight 129-236 g
Type migrant: partial



The Merlin is a small, dark falcon once known as the “Pigeon Hawk” because it somewhat resembles a pigeon in flight. Merlins are widespread, but uncommon throughout their range. In North America, Merlins breed in a variety of habitats in and around open areas in Alaska, Canada, and parts of northern and western United States. The species also breeds in Europe and Asia. Recently, Merlins have begun to occupy suburban and urban areas as well. There are 10 subspecies worldwide, three of which (Taiga, Black, and Prairie) occur in North America. Taiga Merlins breed from Newfoundland west to Alaska and into the northern tier of the United States including the western mountain states, and are highly migratory. Most Black Merlins breed in the Pacific Northwest, and are sedentary. Prairie Merlins breed in south central Canada and in the northern Prairie states of the United States and are partial migrants.



Merlins are slightly larger than American Kestrels. Like other falcons, they have long, thin wings and long tails, and typically engage in active flight. The species is a direct and deliberate flyer that flaps with short, powerful, piston-like wingbeats. Unlike many other falcons, merlins lack distinct mustache markings on their face. Merlins exhibit six recognizably distinct plumages in North America. Adult males and females are distinguishable from each other, as are respective members of the three subspecies. Juveniles of both sexes resemble adult females. Prairie Merlins are lighter and Black Merlins are darker than Taiga Merlins. Adult males have bluishgray backs and wings, and black tails with two to five thin, gray bands. Their underparts have heavy, dark streaking with a rufous wash along the sides of the breast. Female Merlins have dark brown backs and wings, dark brown tails with thin, buff-colored bands, and buff-colored underparts that are heavily streaked. Females are about 10% larger in size and 30% heavier than males.


Breeding Habits

Merlins are typically monogamous. Members of breeding pairs winter separately, and each spring either a new pair bond is formed or an old bond is re-established. Merlins often return to the same breeding area, and many reoccupy the same nesting territory. Reuse of individual nest sites is less common. Males usually return to the breeding grounds about a month earlier than females. In some instances females remain on the nesting territory throughout the year. Merlins do not build their own nests, but rather use the abandoned nest of other birds, mainly those of other raptors or magpies. The species also nests on cliff ledges, the ground, buildings, and in cavities in trees. When nesting on cliffs or on the ground, Merlins create a depression or “scrape” in the substrate. Unlike other North American falcons that do not bring nesting material to the nest, Merlins sometimes add greenery or other nesting materials.


Pairs begin to bond one to two months before egg-laying. Merlins engage in an array of aerial displays. Males use “power flying” (a display that involves flying with deep wingbeats and rolling from side to side while traveling in strong, flapping flight) to attract females and to discourage intruding males. Less and more intense versions of “power flying” are performed by males and females as well. Both members of a pair also soar and “high circle” to mark their territory. In “flutter flight” displays, males fly slowly with quick, shallow wingbeats in a circular or figure eight flight pattern near their perched mate. Courtship rituals also include food begging by the female, food transfers from the male to the female, and nest displays by both sexes.


Merlins lay three to five eggs per clutch. If a clutch is destroyed early in the nesting season, a replacement clutch may be laid. Females do most of the incubating during the 30-day incubation period. After the eggs hatch, the female broods the nestlings continually for seven days. Once the young are at least a week old, females only brood them during inclement weather. Throughout this period, the male provides food for the female and the young. During incubation, males bring food back to the nest, and briefly incubate the eggs while the female feeds while perched nearby. After the eggs hatch, males call to females when returning to the nest area, and females then fly to the males to receive the prey for the nestlings. The young fledge when they are 25 to 35 days old. Two weeks after leaving the nest, fledglings begin to catch insects on their own, even so most young Merlins remain dependent on their parents for about five weeks after fledging.


Feeding Habits

Merlins hunt both from perches and on the wing. Like Accipiters, Merlins employ surprise when hunting from concealed perches and when flying rapidly below the canopy in attempts to flush prey. Individuals sometimes use hills and other landscape features to hide their approach. Although the species sometimes dives on prey, Merlins do not typically execute high speed stoops from great heights. Hunting activity peaks in early morning and late afternoon. Merlins frequently cache surplus food both in winter and in the breeding season. Males cache surplus food near the nest, and females retrieve such items when the male is late in returning with food. Merlins feed primarily on birds. Although the species takes birds as large as pigeons and small ducks, it usually feeds on small- to medium-sized songbirds. In urban areas, House Sparrows are a major component of the diets of many Merlins. Merlins often prey on small shorebirds, particularly in winter. The species also feeds on small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and on insects. Overall, Merlins are opportunistic hunters that feed upon the most abundant and vulnerable prey available.


Bibiliography and Credits:

Ash, Lydia M. “Falconry Birds.” The Modern Apprentice : Falconry Birds. Lydia M. Ash. 29 June 2009 .

“Raptor Life Histories.” Raptor Life Histories. 01 Jan. 2007. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. 29 June 2009

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