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Merlin

Falco columbarius

Merlin The handsome head of a male Merlin. Photo Luke Delve.

Our smallest falcon, the tiny Merlin makes up for its lack of size with sheer determination and lack of fear – they have even been recorded trying to ‘catch’ cars! Perhaps best known as a lady’s falcon in Medieval times, Merlin are specialist in catching birds and were popular for catching larks. It is definitely a bird that lives up to the ‘dashing’ falcon label!

Merlin are found all around the northern hemisphere breeding across northern North America, Europe and northern Asia, across to Japan and north eastern Russia. Many populations are migratory, and birds winter in North and Central America, and even into South America, most of mainland Europe and North Africa, Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and China. There are a number of different sub-species across its range including two in Europe. The British breeding birds share characteristics of both sub-species.

In Britain this is a bird that is only usually encountered in lowland areas in winter and is always an exciting find. With typical falcon shape of triangular, pointed wings it is sometimes difficult to separate on plumage characteristics from the other falcons when, as often, the size is not apparent. Males are slate grey above, similar in colour to Peregrine, but lacking the paler rump area of that species, and with a broad, black terminal tail band. Although the wing tips are darker, they are also boldly spotted with white. Underneath they are fairly pale, with heavy streaking on the chest and belly, strongly barred wings and dark-tipped tail. Females and young birds are browner, with dark brown and rusty brown patterning. The wings are broad-based and short but very pointed, and the barred tail is proportionally long.

VITAL STATISTICS

Size: Average 28cm, wingspan 56cm. Females (230g) larger than males (180g).

Status: Resident breeder. Passage/winter visitor.

Population size: 1,100 pairs.

Conservation status: RED (Due to historical population and range decline).

Lifespan: Average age in the wild is 3 years. Adults have a 62% year-to-year survival. First year survival is 23%. The oldest known wild bird was almost 13 years old (ringing recovery).

Nesting: British birds most commonly nest in simple scrapes on the ground in amongst dense heather or on rock outcrops, but tree nesting in old corvid or raptor nests is well-recorded and some birds will even nest on buildings within its wider world range. As with many birds of prey the female does most if not all of the incubating.

Number of eggs: 4-5

Incubation: 30 days

Fledging time: 28-31 days

Habitat and Distribution: During the breeding season, Merlin is a species of open upland and moorland habitats, although it will breed in open coniferous woodland as well. During the winter it is found over a much wider range of habitats including coastal areas, farmland and lowland heath. Breeding season distribution is northern and western Britain (although it is scarce away from coastal areas in Ireland) including off-shore islands. Merlin can turn up pretty much anywhere in winter, although it is never a common bird.

Movements: Many of our breeding birds move into the lowlands once the breeding season is over, usually within 100km of their natal areas, although a few will cross into western and southern Europe, with some individuals reaching southern France or Spain. Britain is an important wintering area for Icelandic breeding Merlin and many of the individuals encountered in winter will be from this population.

Feeding: Merlin specialise in hunting birds, usually in flight. Unlike Kestrels, which invariably hover looking for mammal or invertebrate prey, Merlins chase their prey in agile, high-speed pursuits. Small passerines such as Meadow Pipit and Skylark are favourite targets, although they will tackle larger prey such as Starling and wading birds. Merlin fly low and fast, aiming to flush their prey into the air, and have been recorded hunting cooperatively, with one bird flushing prey towards their mate. Merlins have been recorded hunting using a distinctive clipped flight style, possibly appearing to other birds less like a falcon and more like the similarly-sized Mistle Thrush, allowing closer approach before their true identity is discovered.

Identification video for Merlin v. Kestrel

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