My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Merlin, Falco columbarius

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Merlin, Falco columbarius

The merlin (Falco columbarius) is a small species of falcon from the Northern Hemisphere. A bird of prey once known colloquially as a pigeon hawk in North America.

The merlin is 24–33 cm (9.4–13.0 in) long with a 50–73 cm (20–29 in) wingspan. Compared with most other small falcons, it is more robust and heavily built. Males average at about 165 g (5.8 oz) and females are typically about 230 g (8.1 oz). There is considerable variation, however, throughout the birds’ range and in particular in migratory populations over the course of a year. Thus, adult males may weigh 125–210 g (4.4–7.4 oz), and females 190–300 g (6.7–10.6 oz). Each wing measures 18.2–23.8 cm (7.2–9.4 in), the tail measures 12.7–18.5 cm (5.0–7.3 in) and the tarsus measures 3.7 cm (1.5 in). Such sexual dimorphism is common among raptors; it allows males and females to hunt different prey animals and decreases the territory size needed to feed a mated pair.

The male merlin has a blue-grey back, ranging from almost black to silver-grey in different subspecies. Its underparts are buff- to orange-tinted and more or less heavily streaked with black to reddish brown. The female and immature are brownish-grey to dark brown above, and whitish buff spotted with brown below. Besides a weak whitish supercilium and the faint dark malar stripe—which are barely recognizable in both the palest and the darkest birds—the face of the merlin is less strongly patterned than in most other falcons. Nestlings are covered in pale buff down feathers, shading to whitish on the belly.

The remiges are blackish, and the tail usually has some 3–4 wide blackish bands, too. Very light males only have faint and narrow medium-grey bands, while in the darkest birds the bands are very wide, so that the tail appears to have narrow lighter bands instead. In all of them, however, the tail tip is black with a narrow white band at the very end, a pattern possibly plesiomorphic for all falcons. Altogether, the tail pattern is quite distinct though, resembling only that of the aplomado falcon (F. berigora) and (in light merlins) some typical kestrels. The eye and beak are dark, the latter with a yellow cere. The feet are also yellow, with black claws.

Merlins inhabit fairly open country, such as willow or birch scrub, shrubland, but also taiga forest, parks, grassland such as steppe and prairies, or moorland. They are not very habitat-specific and can be found from sea level to the treeline. In general, they prefer a mix of low and medium-height vegetation with some trees, and avoid dense forests as well as treeless arid regions. During migration however, they will utilize almost any habitat.

Most of its populations are migratory, wintering in warmer regions. Northern European birds move to southern Europe and North Africa, and North American populations to the southern United States to northern South America. In the milder maritime parts of its breeding range, such as Great Britain, the Pacific Northwest and western Iceland, as well as in Central Asia, it will merely desert higher ground and move to coasts and lowland during winter. The migration to the breeding grounds starts in late February, with most birds passing through the USA, Central Europe and southern Russia in March and April, and the last stragglers arriving in the breeding range towards the end of May. Migration to winter quarters at least in Eurasia peaks in August/September, while e.g. in Ohio, just south of the breeding range, F. c. columbarius is typically recorded as a southbound migrant as late as September/October.

In Europe, merlins will roost communally in winter, often with hen harriers (Circus cyaneus). In North America, communal roosting is rare, and merlins are well-known for fiercely attacking any birds of prey that they encounter, even adult eagles.

Merlins rely on speed and agility to hunt their prey. They often hunt by flying fast and low, typically less than 1 m (3.3 ft) above the ground, using trees and large shrubs to take prey by surprise. But they actually capture most prey in the air, and will “tail-chase” startled birds. Throughout its native range, the merlin is one of the most able aerial predators of small to mid-sized birds, more versatile if anything than the larger hobbies (which prefer to attack in mid-air) and the more nimble sparrowhawks (which usually go for birds resting or sleeping in dense growth). Breeding pairs will frequently hunt cooperatively, with one bird flushing the prey toward its mate.

The merlin will readily take prey that is flushed by other causes, and can for example be seen tagging along sharp-shinned hawks (Accipiter striatus) to catch birds that escape from this ambush predator into the open air. It is quite unafraid, and will readily attack anything that moves conspicuously. Merlins have even been observed trying to “catch” automobiles and trains, and to feed on captive birds such as those snared in the mist nets used by ornithologists. Even under adverse conditions, one in 20 targets is usually caught, and under good conditions almost every other attack will be successful. Sometimes, merlins cache food to eat it later.

In particular during the breeding season, most of the prey are smallish birds weighing 10–40 g (0.35–1.41 oz). Almost any such species will be taken, with local preferences for whatever is most abundant—be it larks (Alaudidae), pipits (Anthus) or house sparrows (Passer domesticus)—and inexperienced yearlings always a favorite. Smaller birds will generally avoid a hunting merlin if possible. Even in the Cayman Islands (where it only occurs in winter), bananaquits were noted to die of an apparent heart attack or stroke, without being physically harmed, when a merlin went at them and they could not escape.

Larger birds (e.g. sandpipers, flickers and even rock pigeons as heavy as the merlin itself) and other animals—insects (especially dragonflies and moths), small mammals (especially bats and voles) and reptiles—complement its diet. These are more important outside the breeding season, when they can make up a considerable part of the merlin’s diet. But for example in Norway, while small birds are certainly the breeding merlin’s staple food, exceptional breeding success seems to require an abundance of Microtus voles.

Corvids are the primary threat to eggs and nestlings. Adult merlins may be preyed on by larger raptors, especially peregrine falcons (F. peregrinus), eagle-owls (e.g., great horned owl, Bubo virginianus), and larger Accipiter hawks (e.g., northern goshawk, A. gentilis). In general however, carnivorous birds avoid merlins due to their aggressiveness and agility.

Breeding occurs typically in May/June. Though the pairs are monogamous at least for a breeding season, extra-pair copulations have been recorded. Most nest sites have dense vegetative or rocky cover; the merlin does not build a proper nest of its own. Most will use abandoned corvid (particularly Corvus crow and Pica magpie) or hawk nests which are in conifer or mixed tree stands. In moorland—particularly in the UK—the female will usually make a shallow scrape in dense heather to use as a nest. Others nest in crevices on cliff-faces and on the ground, and some may even use buildings.

Three to six (usually 4 or 5) eggs are laid. The rusty-brown eggs average at about 40 mm × 31.5 mm (1.57 in × 1.24 in). The incubation period is 28 to 32 days. Incubation is performed by the female to about 90%; the male instead hunts to feed the family. Hatchlings weigh about 13 g (0.46 oz). The young fledge after another 30 days or so, and are dependent on their parents for up to 4 more weeks. Sometimes first-year merlins (especially males) will serve as a “nest helper” for an adult pair. More than half, often all or almost all, eggs of a clutch survive to hatching, and at least two-thirds of the hatched young fledge. However, as noted above, in years with little supplementary food only 1 young in 3 may survive to fledging. The merlin becomes sexually mature at one year of age and usually attempts to breed right away. The oldest wild bird known as of 2009 was recorded in its 13th winter

In medieval Europe, merlins were popular in falconry: the Book of St. Albans listed it as “the falcon for a lady”. Today, they are still occasionally trained by falconers for hunting smaller birds, but due to conservation restrictions this is not as common as in the past. In countries where they are allowed for falconry they are highly regarded. Though the merlin is only slightly larger than the American kestrel in dimensions, it averages about one third larger by weight, with this weight mostly being extra muscle that gives it greater speed and endurance than the kestrel. Though the most common prey pursued by merlins in falconry are sparrows and starlings, they are capable of taking small game birds such as dove and quail. Their eagerness to hunt leads them to pursue falconry lures avidly, and they will put on entertaining displays chasing a swung lure.

On to my photos:

These photos were on two separate occasions, the first ones at the Muskegon wastewater facility, and the others, at Millenium Park in Kent County.

Merlin, Falco columbarius

Merlin, Falco columbarius


Merlin, Falco columbarius

Merlin, Falco columbarius


Merlin, Falco columbarius

Merlin, Falco columbarius


Merlin, Falco columbarius

Merlin, Falco columbarius


Merlin, Falco columbarium in flight

Merlin, Falco columbarium in flight



This is number 187 in my photo life list, only 163 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!



26 responses

  1. What a wonderful goal! Gorgeous raptor.

    February 26, 2016 at 12:48 am

    • Thank you very much Cindy!

      February 26, 2016 at 2:03 pm

  2. This one looks like a little hunter!

    February 26, 2016 at 4:50 am

    • Thanks Allen! It’s harder to tell in photos, but I’ve been lucky enough to see a merlin, a peregrine, and a kestrel all in the same day, and the merlin falls in-between the other two for overall length, but it’s definitely more muscular than the other two falcons. On top of that, they’re cute too.

      February 26, 2016 at 2:08 pm

  3. Thanks for all the information and the splendid pictures to go with it.

    February 26, 2016 at 5:16 am

    • Thank you very much Susan! Maybe you’ll see one of them in your travels, they aren’t that shy and will live in cities.

      February 26, 2016 at 2:09 pm

  4. Beautiful shot.

    February 26, 2016 at 8:24 am

    • Thank you very much Belinda!

      February 26, 2016 at 2:10 pm

  5. I just love looking at your photos and learning about the different birds. I’m taking a break now from a gardening class and thoroughly enjoying your latest post. Thanks for sharing this beautiful world!

    February 26, 2016 at 2:08 pm

    • Thank you very much Carole!

      February 26, 2016 at 3:39 pm

  6. These little raptors are so ‘cute’. Love your captures. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in real life. Their hunting prowess is amazing given their diminutive size.

    February 26, 2016 at 2:57 pm

    • I hesitated to use the word ‘cute’ to describe this lovely critter, but felt better when I read your reply to Allen. 😉

      February 26, 2016 at 2:59 pm

      • Thank you very much Gunta! I know, it’s hard to use the word cute to describe a bird that’s as fierce as they come, but as small as they are, you can’t help but think cute when you see them.

        February 26, 2016 at 3:40 pm

  7. I do love Merlins and your shots are superb!

    February 26, 2016 at 7:37 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare!

      February 26, 2016 at 11:35 pm

  8. Dare I say fiercely adorable?! 🙂 Your photos are superb, Jerry! When I see raptors soaring by high in the sky, and I wonder what raptor was that? Never have time to ID before their gone, let alone lock focus on them.

    February 27, 2016 at 6:51 am

  9. Handsome raptor, at least thanks to your photos! I am surprised it can eat other birds its own size.

    February 27, 2016 at 9:58 am

    • Thanks! They may be small and cute, but they’re tough little things.

      February 27, 2016 at 2:46 pm

  10. I have seen a small raptor here on the farm, although I have not been able to get a good luck at the fellow yet for identification.

    February 27, 2016 at 10:39 am

    • Thanks again. For me, having photos of a bird that I’m trying to ID helps immensely, I’d be lost if I didn’t have my photos. Even then, it takes practice to learn how to ID birds.

      February 27, 2016 at 2:48 pm

  11. The raptors are always a bit chilling to contemplate. So elegant, yet deadly.

    Hope you see this one again sometime – would love to see more photos.

    February 27, 2016 at 11:11 pm

    • Thanks Judy! You’re right, they are cute until you see one chowing down on one of your favorite songbirds.

      February 28, 2016 at 3:46 am

  12. TPJ

    After photographing various Falcons the last month I certainly have a greater appreciation for them. Incredible birds. Great photos here of hard to get birds.

    February 28, 2016 at 3:33 pm

    • Thank you very much! I got lucky.

      February 28, 2016 at 4:10 pm

  13. Wonderful information ‘panel’ and then your superb photos of these beautiful merlins – I’m learning so much and enjoying it all.

    February 29, 2016 at 6:05 am

    • Thank you very much! I have been lucky in finding so many birds as quickly as I have, especially the falcons.

      February 29, 2016 at 6:33 am