Merlin-Falco columbarius

Merlins belong to the Family Falconidae of the Order Falconiformes and are placed in the genus Falco. They are the smallest bird of prey in the UK. The male is known as the Jack merlin. Stone Falcon refers to the juvenile. In North America they are often referred to as the Pigeon Hawk, even though it is not closely related to the hawks.

In Medieval Europe merlins were very popular in falconry.

because of their elusivness and remote habitat locations merlins are not commonly encountered, one has to savour even the briefest sightings as they fly past very low and very fast. They are nowhere common in England. 

Merlins collide with man made structures such as wind farms which often cause fatalities.

In America light coloured male merlins are sometimes confused with American kestrel. 

Merlin's are handsome birds

The American kestrel is sometimes mistaken for the merlin in that country


                        " The elfin king,like the merlin's wing

                          Are his pinions of glossy blue"

The merlin is about the size of a mistle thrush, slightly larger than the blackbird. The female is slightly larger than the male a common trait in birds of prey. they have the pointed wings of the kestrel but is smaller and shorter tailed with a darker duller plumage.

The male is grey-blue above with buff coloured under parts, many having an orange tint, streaked darker, wing tips are dark and pointed.

Female and juvenile are dark brown above with white or whitish under parts, streaked darker. The upper surface of the wings and tail are barred cream coloured.

The bill is hooked, bluish grey with yellow cere {blue grey in juveniles} yellow legs;bare skin around the eye blue grey;apart from a faint moustache there are no distinct facial markings.The head is squarish. In relation to its body size the wings are medium long , the neck short, legs medium short.

Movement---The flight of the merlin is much swifter and more dashing than that of the kestrel. They out fly birds by sheer dogged  persistence; sometimes hovers but not habitually like the kestrel does. Usually flies fast close to the ground.


Prey for merlin

Small birds, with a few insects {particularly moths,}, lizards and mice are the main stay diet of the merlin . However, this efficient killer will also attack birds much larger than itself, these include lapwings, teal,and in the Scottish highlands ptarmigans. Prey is often caught during level flight with impressive speed and agility.

On the other hand this capable bird may choose to fins a suitable perch on a moorland slope. It scans the open surroundings for potential prey such as lark, pipit, wheatear or whinchat as they themselves are foraging for food. 

There is on record {1857} witness to a merlin striking a partridge, certainly twice its own weight, dead, with a single blow. it skims like a swallow over the ground with equal aerial prowess. 

Merlins' prey on small birds such as this meadow pipit.

Image courtesy of Zambog   CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

Lifestyle and breeding.

Merlin's in Britain over winter at coastal grounds, having discovered there is an abundance of small birds to be had at these localities. However, by the end of March or the beginning of April they begin their travels back to the breeding grounds. They will rest up sometimes for many days at suitable localities,waiting for the weather to improve, making their moorland and mountain breeding grounds more hospitable.

In northern England egg laying may not commence until the end of May. The female sits close at first but if disturbed or alarmed more than once, becomes extremely shy and wary. The male is usually situated close by on the top of some eminence, from where he watches for approach of any intruder of which he gives notice by a shrill cry of alarm.

The nest is commonly situated on the ground;on open moors or heath;frequently at the side of a ravine, in a tuft of heater,or projection of a rock or bank. In all these situations it is composed of scanty materials-a few twigs, with heather, grass or moss, the bare ground is almost sufficient for the purpose. On rare occasions it may use a disused nest of the Corvine family in which to lay its eggs.  

The eggs which may number 3-5 are very similar to those of the kestrel, though rather smaller; they are light red or reddish white, blotched with dull red or brown spots, especially so at the broad end.

The female incubates the eggs for about a month, with the male taking over while she eats food he has provided. Feeding time at the nest of the merlin causes much squabbling to ensue; the food becomes a victim of tug-of-war with the larger stronger chick most often claiming the spoils. This chick will then turn its back on its siblings as it eats the food.

The young soon grow a dense covering of fluffy white down. After about three weeks the young are capable of tearing meat for themselves, and a week or so later they attempt their first tentative flight. Observing them at this stage of their lives, it is hard to imagine they will be capable of lightning fast aerial movements within a couple of months time,. those that do not master the skill and apply it to hunting prey are doomed to starve.

There is an influx of birds that have bred in Iceland arriving in Britain to spend the winter months in our relative warm climate. 

Perfect breeding grounds for the merlin. Image courtesy of Jimmy Pitts Public domain.

Conservation issues

Along with many other birds of prey merlins suffered from persecution and by the prevalent use of DDT pesticide poisoning. other factors included moorland fragmentation and/or over grazing by sheep.

Merlins are Schedule 1 species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 [ as amended ] in the UK. This means that the bird, nest, egg, and young are fully protected by the law.

The UK population 1,300 pairs was the last estimate from the BTO in 1990-94. breeding has slowly increased since that period but it is still to scarce for an annual population monitoring.

They are included on the Amber list of conservation concern due to historical decline. 

Reuse of images.

The images on this page may be reused. However, the name of the relevant author must be attributed along with any accompanying license.

Conservation update 2019-2021

Unfortunately the Merlin has now returned to the Red list of conservation concern.

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