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Merlin { Birds of Europe}

Updated on August 9, 2015

Merlin, Falco columbarius

Eastern USA.
Eastern USA. | Source


The Merlin belongs to the order of birds known as the Accipitriformes and the family Falconidae within that order. They have been allocated the genus name of Falco,which derives fro Latin falcis-a sickle a reference to the hooked talons. The specific name of columbaris derives from the Latin columba meaning a pigeon or dove+ arius pertaining to.

In the UK thy are placed on the Amber list of conservation concern { declines of between 25% and 50% over the last forty years or so},because they are still recovering from historical declines. In Ireland they also listed on the Amber list due to its small breeding populations. In the UK they are classed as migrant/resident breeders and passage winter visitors. Their population in summer in the UK is estimated at 1,100 pairs. { source BTO}

The European population is regarded as being secure with a total population of between 11 and 19,000 pairs in summer.The population is split between many countries here are some selected population examples. Belarus,between 300-500 Breeding pairs {BP}, Finland 2,000-3,000 BP. Iceland 1,000-2,000 BP. Norway 2,500-6,500 BP. Russia 20,000-30,000 BP.

In the winter they can be found in many countries such as Austria that has between 100 and 300 individuals, Croatia 50-100 individuals, Czech Republic 50-100 individuals,Greece 100-300 individuals, Poland 250-1,000 individuals and Ukraine 1,500-2,000 individuals. { source Birdlife}

The bird breeds in northern Eurasia,Canada and northern USA. They winter south to north Africa, south east Asia and north South America. It is a bird of Moor,Heath,desert and open coniferous forests.

The Gaelic name for the bird is Mirneal, the Welsh name is Cudyll Bach The Irish name meirhun and the Croatian name is Mali Sokol


Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to commons by Dysmorodrepanis
Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to commons by Dysmorodrepanis | Source

What are Falcons ?

Falcons are birds of prey which is a mixed group including birds that eat tiny insects,others that eat dead animals and others that catch their own prey up to the size of a small deer. Many are capable of spectacular aerial flights while others remain perched for hours on end in between feeding forays.

These species include some of Europe's largest birds, for example the Vultures which soar high in the sky,using their superb eyesight to spot potential food on the ground. They eat the meat of preferably fresh dead animals. To aid their flight they require warm,rising air, or updraughts.They lave in southern Europe,and mountainous regions.

Then there are the Eagles and Hawks.. The Eagles are powerful hunters with large eyes and powerful bills,and strong feet.Most have feathered legs. Buzzards are smaller,less strong.Their bills are not as powerful, but they too are superb fliers.The Harriers hunt over open ground flying low so can surprise their prey at close range.

Bird eating hawks such as the Sparrowhawk catch prey by surprise in lightening dashes.The Kites have long notched or forked tails that swivel and act as rudders in their elegant flight. large falcons catch large prey and eat infrequently spending long periods perched but look impressive in the air when they do fly.

The smaller falcons,which our subject is, are generally much more active,some eat small animals such as voles,while others mostly insects and birds. The Merlin is reviewed here,and as always we commence with a description of the species under review.

Merlin and Habitat

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley.
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley. | Source

merlin taken in Iceland

Originally posted to Flickr ,uploaded to Commons by MPF. Taken in Iceland.
Originally posted to Flickr ,uploaded to Commons by MPF. Taken in Iceland. | Source

Description of the Merlin

At a glance--- The adult male has a square head with little patterning and bluish-grey upper parts,and an orange buff colour below. The female is mud brown above and a creamy colour below with streaks.

They have large broad wings which taper to a point, the male has a pale tail with a black band.The female has a brown and cream barred tail. They fly low and fast with constant wing is a small dynamic,chunky falcon,chasing prey during their fast agile flights. Similar looking birds are the Hobby** and the Peregrine ** falcons.

In much more detail----The adult male has upper parts of a deep greyish blue each faeher having a black central line. The lower parts are a dull ruddy yellow with longitudinal dark oblong spots. The male and female differ generally but little in size compared with other birds of prey when the female is considerably larger.

The bill is short,strong,pale blue at the base blackish blue at the tip. The cere is a dull yellow , the iris is dark brown.The head is large,broad and flat, the forehead and the sides of the head are greyish white, the latter lined with black. there is a white band over the eye,margined beneath with black. The crown is a bluish brown grey,each feather streaked with blue in the centre. the neck is short and thick set,a dull yellowish red,encircled with a reddish brown ring,spotted or shaded with black.

From the corners of the mouth descend on each side a few black streaks,forming a very faint moustache born by other falcons. The nape banded with a pale red. The chin white,as is the throat,or greyish buff white. The breast a dull yellowish red,sometimes may be a deep orange brown,the shafts and a spot towards the end is dark brown.

The back is a deep greyish blue lighter towards the tail, the feathers streaked in the centre with black,as are all the bluish feathers of the back. The primaries are black or blackish or bluish brown tinged with grey-the outer margins of the first spotted with white. The inner webs spotted transversely with white,underneath they are paler coloured barred with white, the the third feather is the longest, but the second is nearly as long.

The secondary feathers are a deep, greyish blue and curved inwards, the shafts black. tertiaries also greyish blue. The greater and lesser wing coverts, bluish grey-the shafts of the feathers black.The greater and lesser under wing coverts are yellowish white,with dusky spots and streaks. The tail is bluish grey with various numbered dark bands, there are twelve tail feathers being of nearly equal length. broad and rounded the tip is white,underneath it is barred with darker and lighter shades of grey with a broad band and white tip.

The legs are yellow, feathered in front more than one third the way down and reticulated. the feathers are rufous with dusky streaks. The toes are yellow, the first the shortest, the third the longest. The fourth is a little longer than the second. The front ones are connected at the base by a short membrane. The claws are black.

The female differs considerably from the male . The upper parts a dark bluish grey tinged with brown,the feathers streaked black. The under parts are yellowish white,with large brown spots. The bill is light blue,tipped with black. from the angle of the mouth extends a band of brown formed by the markings on the middle of the feathers. The cere is yellow. The iris as in the male-brown. The forehead yellowish white ,a yellowish line edged on the underside with blackish brown,extending over the eye. The head is a dark rufous brow, the feathers edged with red at the tip. The crown is reddish brown with dusky black streaks down the shafts of the feathers,the neck,behind yellowish white the feathers tipped with brown. There is a ring round it of yellowish white streaked and spotted with dusky brown.

The nape inclining towards rufous,and as the crown. The chin,throat white or yellowish white, the feathers on the side being tipped with brown. The breast,pale reddish yellow,or brownish white,marked with oblong spots of dark brown, larger than those of the male. The back,and wings are brown mixed with rufous,the shaft and centre of each feather being darker,and the edge tipped with red.

The tail which is greyish brown or dusky,has five bars of very pale reddish brown or yellowish white spots,and the tip banded with greyish white. The side feathers have two light bars at the base.

The legs are yellow, the long feathers streaked with brown. The shorter feathers nearly white The toes are yellow and the claws are black.

** This species has already been reviewed in this series.

BTO ID,Kestrel and Merlin, Courtesy of the British Trust for Ornithology Standard YouTube license.

Illustration of Merlin pair. Male at the front female in the rear.

Naumann's, 'Natural History of Birds'
Naumann's, 'Natural History of Birds' | Source

General and historical information

The Merlin is the UK's smallest bird of prey,it is a compact dashing falcon with a relatively long,square cut tail and rather broad pointed wings,shorter than those of other falcons. Its wing beats tend to be rapid with occasional glides,the wings held close to the body. Its small size also enables it to hover and hang in the breeze as it pursues its prey.

Here in the UK it is at its south west extremity of the birds European range. It is thinly scattered across upland moor land from south west England north to Shetland {Scotland}. In winter the birds tend to leave their upland regions and inhabit lowland and coastal regions.

From its habit of perching on stones it was once referred to as the 'stone falcon',indeed as such it was once described as a distinct species. The courage of the bird can be in no doubt,they are wild and wary,and according to Temminck {1800's}, is able to endure a high degree of cold,and is described by him as being commonly found within the limits of the Arctic circle.

The Merlin flies low and with great ease and celerity. It suddenly sweeps by,and is gone almost before you have time to glance at it,gliding along the side of an hedge or wood,and then over,or into it. However, sometimes a little longer view is permitted when the bird is flying in the open in pursuit of some little bird.

The Merlin requires extensive open ground for hunting. It feeds chiefly on small birds caught in the open country,though small mammals and insects are often important. Although much persecuted by Gamekeepers in days gone by,Merlins' rarely take game birds. They hunt by perching on some elevated position to locate the prey,usually on rocks or tree stumps. Once prey is sighted,it is usually caught after a surprise and short ,rapid chase,following a low flight from the perch. Other hunting techniques include a more prolonged persistent chase and sometimes by stooping.

A mated pair frequently hunt together. Prey is usually caught in the air close to the ground or on the ground. Only a small proportion of hunts are successful with the success rate varying with hunting method and prey.Once caught the prey is plucked and decapitated, before being eaten or taken to the nest.

Sir William Jardine stated that " In pursuit of prey, the Merlin does not often mount above it and rush down,as we have generally seen in the Peregrine**, but at once gives chase following the victim through all its turns and windings to escape,and unless cover is at hand,it is generally successful"

Morris 'History of Birds' relates the following information-" In pursuit of Shore birds,Dunlins,Dotterels and their ilk, it will coarse them to the edge of and sometimes even over the water. It is so determined on and in the capture of its prey that it is difficult to make it leave that of which it has secured,and which it often obtains by pouncing on it unawares, but it also chases in the open air."

In such a case as in Shore birds-the bird normally singles out one victim from a flock and concentrates solely upon that victim and at no time is its attention turned to any of the others.

Merlin pair hunting together.

Uploaded from Flickr to Commons by MPF
Uploaded from Flickr to Commons by MPF | Source

Merlin and Man

Again I allude to Morris 'A History of British Birds 1862, who conveys to us that " In spirit it is 'nulli secundus', second to none,and was accordingly used in former times in Falconry,for the pursuit of birds even much larger than itself,which it would frequently kill by a single blow on the head,neck or breast"

The author of the 'Book of Falconrie' stated that they were 'passing and good hawks,and very skilful '. Unlike other birds of prey such as the similar looking Kestrel** and Sparrowhawk,when pursued by a group of other small birds, it has been observed, instead of flying from them,they often turn to become the aggressor,and at once disperse them. Another writer records that the birds are easily tamed,though it never becomes familiar,and, was accordingly in former times employed in the chase.

**This species has already been reviewed in this series.

Courtesy of Jeremy Green;Standard YouTube License. Jeremy's first short film.

Egg of the Merlin


Breeding ,Nest and Eggs.

Female Merlins are ready to breed at one year old,and the males ,or a t least the majority ,do not breed until the second year. They tend to return to familiar territories year on year,but not always to the same nest. The nest is built by the female,generally in a shallow scrape in the ground,lined with small twigs,pieces of heather, bracken and other local materials. This is the traditional nesting habitat of the Merlin,in the UK.

However, studies have revealed that since the 1970.s Merlins have started to nest in trees on the edges of conifer plantations and feeding on open ground ear by. This change in the choice of nest locating mirrors their continental counterparts,and conservation organisations hope this may assist the species to extend its range in the UK. However, where tree nesting occurs there has also been a reduction in the use of traditional ground nest sites.

During May or Early June {UK}, the female will deposit three to five light,buff,coloured eggs spotted with red-brown. The eggs are laid at two day intervals and incubation commences when the last egg has been laid, thus all the chicks will hatch together. The incubation period lasts for between 28-32 days and the majority of the task is undertaken by the female with relief breaks from her mate.

The female stays close to the nest and it usually falls on her to provide protection for it and its contents. Her mate will provide all the food during the incubation period and until after the young have fledged. The female sometimes joins her mate in the hunt for prey when the chicks are well over their first week in the nest.

Studies have revealed that the young of the ground nest will often leave at 18-20 days and scatter into the surrounding vegetation. They fledge at 25-32 days and become independent about a month later. The birds raise one brood per year. Late nests and eggs are replacement clutches after predation or other cause of failure.

The male provides all the food during the incubation period


Young birds.

The young birds when they first fledge resemble the adult female,but are lighter in colour.The males however, less so than the females, and are tinged with blue on the back. The former gradually assumes more blue, but the latter change less. The centre of the feathers in the immature birds is dark brown edged with rufous,instead of being marked in the centre with grey.

The bill as in the adults, the cere yellow. A yellowish line extends over the eye. The iris is brown, but subject to variations in shade. The forehead is yellowish white , the head streaked on the sides,which are yellowish red, with brown, and a band of the latter colour descends from the angle of the mouth. The neck yellowish behind, the feathers tipped with brown The chin yellowish white, the throat yellowish white, the shafts of the feathers brown. The breast a pale reddish yellow streaked longitudinally with brown. The back is dark brown slightly tinged with blue, the feathers edged and marked with pale yellowish red in obscure sots and streaked in the centre with dark brown or black.

The tail is dark brown,barred with five distinct bands composed of pale reddish brown spots. The tip is reddish or greyish white. There are three other bars near the base. The under tail coverts are partially streaked with a narrow brown line near the end. The legs are dull yellow the feathers marked with a brown streak. The males vary in colour as they advance with age, the blue on th back being tinged with brown at first,and gradually gains a purer hue.

Merlin in flight

Uploaded to Commons via MPF. The image was taken at Bandon Marsh wetland Reserve ,Oregon USA.
Uploaded to Commons via MPF. The image was taken at Bandon Marsh wetland Reserve ,Oregon USA. | Source


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, they are beautiful birds we are lucky here in Lancashire they are quite common on the uplands in summer and on the coast in winter. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      These are such gorgeous birds. They are not really common here. Nice story with great descriptions!

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hello Devika, thank you first of all for being the first to visit. secondly for your kind and encouraging comments and last but not least for your votes. All of which are truly appreciated. Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Hi D.A.L. beautiful photos and very interesting indeed.The Merlin certainly is a unique character and you explained to the point and with great thought. Voted up, interesting and useful.


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