Merlin, Falco columbarius

This bird of prey is known more as a pigeon hawk. The Merlin is from the Northern Hemisphere with some migrating to subtropical and northern tropical areas during the winter. There has also been a discovery that there are two different, very distinct, species: the North American and the Eurasian.

The North American Merlin was first described by a Swede taxonomist, Carl Linnaeus. The Merlin is between 9 and 13 inches long with a wingspan of 20-29 inches. The Merlin is an exceptionally strong falcon with males weighing 5.8 ounces and the female upwards of 8 ounces. During the migration period there is a slight weight loss or gain; the males range from 4.4 ounces to about 7.5 ounces while the females range from 6.7-11 ounces. These vast differences in weight are important to the Merlin and other raptors so that both male and female can hunt different types of animals. This also helps decrease the size of the feeding area.

The coloring on the Merlin is different between the genders as well. The male Merlin is blue-grey on his back and even silver and black in subspecies. The breast of the male is orange tinted with streaks of reddish brown. The female, as well as the young, is brownish-grey to a darker brown on the back with their breasts white with brown spots. The flight feathers (remiges) are blackish. Males that are lighter than others will have a faint and narrow grey band. In both genders, the tail tip is black with a small band of white.

Merlin’s habitat consists of open spaces, willow or birch scrub, grasslands and parks. They range from sea level to tree line and prefer low and medium height vegetation, avoiding dense forests and treeless areas. During migration they will use most habitats. Merlin birds prefer the coastlines for breeding during warmer weather. Merlins will roost with others during the winter months and will attack other birds of prey that get to close.

Merlins mainly hunt fish, relying on speed and accuracy as they dive for the fish. The Merlin will catch other prey in the air thus being known as the best aerial predator. The breeding pair hunt together; one pushes the prey and the other catches the prey. The Merlin will attack anything that moves no matter what other animal is chasing it. Merlin will also save their catch to consume later. While breeding, the Merlin will eat insects, small mammals, and reptiles.

May and June are the typical breeding months and pairs are monogamous for just that season. Since the Merlin does not make their own nests, they will use abandoned nests, cliffs, and sometimes buildings. The female will usually make a shallow scrape in low lying shrubs. The female generally lays four or five eggs that are a rusty brown and about 1.5 by 1.24 inches in size. The female will sit on (incubate) these eggs for 28 to 32 days while the male takes over the hunting responsibilities. Hatchlings weigh less than an ounce. Over the next 30 days the young will begin to develop their flight muscles and wings. It takes about a year for the young to become sexually mature and will begin to breed immediately.

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Falconiformes

Family: Falconidae

Image Caption: A Merlin sitting atop a post in Alberta, Canada. Credit: Raj Boora / Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)