The Canadian Peregrine Foundation

Raptor Identification - Merlin

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Merlin (Falco columbarius)
The Merlin is a relatively small falcon of the prairies, boreal forests, and subarctic areas of North America.  Like the Peregrine, most races have a dark gray back, while immatures are brownish. However, they can easily be told apart from Peregrines because their moustache is either narrow or absent, and because they are considerably smaller (midway between a Kestrel and a Peregrine).


The following article about Merlins was reproduced (with modifications) from the November 2001 issue of CPF's Talon Tales. The article was written by Marcel Gahbauer.

The merlin’s scientific name is Falco columbarius - a reference to its original North American name of "pigeon hawk", as columbarius means "pertaining to a dove or pigeon" in Latin. Unlike the peregrine which was formerly known as the "duck hawk" for its choice of prey, the name pigeon hawk alluded to the merlin’s pigeon-like flight. The Old French esmerillon is the root of both "merlin" and the modern French name for the species, "Faucon émerillon".

A juvenile merlin atop a spruce.
Photo © 2001

Description and identification tips:
The merlin is a small falcon, similar in size to a blue jay. Males average 24-27 cm long, with a wingspan of 53-58 cm. As in most raptors the females are somewhat larger, with measurements of 28-30 cm and 61-68 cm, respectively. Average weights are 155 grams for a male and 210 grams for a female. Merlins are unusual among raptors in that the sex of adults can be told apart by plumage. Males are slate blue-gray above, with bold black tail bands; females are brown with buff-coloured tail bands. Both have a whitish throat and a buff breast moderately to heavily streaked with brown. In general the plumage of juveniles is similar to that of adult females. They begin acquiring adult plumage around ten months of age, but often complete their moult only at the end of their second summer.

Each summer some merlins are reported to CPF as "baby" peregrines. The fledglings of the two species are quite similar in colour, but since they are fully grown before they take flight, even juvenile peregrines are more than fifty percent larger than merlins. Peregrines can also be distinguished by the prominent dark malar stripe on their cheek, which on merlins is faint or entirely absent. In terms of behaviour, peregrines prefer to hunt by diving at their prey, while merlins attack in level flight.

The merlin may also be confused with the American kestrel, which is only slightly smaller. A key behavioural difference is that merlins do not hover, while kestrels do so frequently. The kestrel is also much more colourful, and has two prominent black facial streaks. Closer in appearance to the merlin in terms of both size and colour is the sharp-shinned hawk. These species are best told apart by their wings: long and pointed on the merlin, and short and rounded on the sharp-shin.

Habitat and distribution:
The merlin has a circumpolar distribution. In North America, the summer range includes almost all of Canada, plus Alaska and several northwestern states. Three distinct forms of the merlin have been identified in North America. The taiga merlin (described above) is the most widespread, ranging throughout the boreal forest from Labrador to Alaska, and south into the western United States. This race tends to be highly migratory, wintering as far south as Peru.

The prairie merlin breeds in the aspen parkland and towns of the Canadian prairies and adjacent states. It is the palest of the three forms, especially on the underwings; it is also somewhat larger than the other races. Many prairie merlins, especially those living in urban areas, remain at their breeding territories throughout the year, but others may migrate as far as Mexico.

The black merlin is a relatively uncommon resident of the Pacific coastal forest of British Columbia and southeast Alaska. As the name suggests, this race is very dark, with a nearly black cap, only faint tail bars, and almost solid dark underwings. Some black merlins move as far as California or New Mexico in winter, but others do not migrate.

Natural history:
Courtship typically takes place in April. Like other falcons, the merlin does not build a nest. Northern populations may nest on the ground, usually at spots where they have a commanding view of the surroundings. Where trees are available, merlins prefer to nest in an abandoned stick nest, often that of a crow. Four to five eggs are typical; they hatch after four weeks of incubation. Both adults help raise the young, though the female is more involved with their direct care, while the male is the primary hunter. Chicks fledge at around 25 to 27 days.

Merlins have a voracious appetite. It has been estimated that during the breeding season a family of merlins consumes 24 kilograms of prey. The bulk of their diet is small songbirds. When hunting, the merlin typically flies over open forest or grassland at high speed (up to 70 km/h), flushing out birds and snatching individuals which react too slowly. Merlins are extremely agile in the air, able to make remarkably rapid changes of direction to keep up with their quarry. Alternatively, merlins may hunt by watching for activity from a perch, and then launching into rapid flight from there. Merlins also feed on insects, especially in migration when they often grab dragonflies or butterflies out of the air - snacks which they eat in flight without even slowing down!

Conservation status:
In Europe the merlin is uncommon, and even declining in some regions such as the United Kingdom. The situation is quite different in North America. Though most historical populations were poorly described, it is generally believed that like the peregrine the merlin suffered a severe decline due to DDT in the 1950s and 1960s. However, the merlin has experienced a much more rapid and dramatic recovery, to the extent that some believe the merlin is now more numerous than ever before. For example, in Algonquin Park merlins were first confirmed as breeding in 1978. Since then, their population has exploded, with a park biologist estimating that as of 2001 every big lake and most medium-sized ones now have a resident pair of merlins - a total of approximately 200 pairs across Algonquin.

Another fascinating development is that the merlin is rapidly colonizing urban areas. It settled in Saskatchewan cities in the 1980s, and is now the most abundant raptor in most of the province’s urban areas. Over the past few years merlins have expanded into Ottawa, and are likely to soon appear in other Ontario cities. The success of the merlin is a great story in itself, and a good omen for the recovery of the peregrine.

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