MERLIN – Falco columbarius

The Merlin is a small, compact falcon just slightly larger than an American Kestrel.  Its body length is from 9-12 inches (24-30 cm) and the wingspan is 21-27 inches (53-68 cm).  The Merlin’s tail appears square-tipped when folded while that of other falcons is usually more rounded.  When perched, they seem to have a wide chest, big head and large, dark eyes.  Their plumage appears dark above and streaked below.  The tail has several white, narrow bands.

In North America, Merlins are widespread and appear to be adapting to human habitation and have learned to use suburban areas for nesting and wintering.  They breed in boreal forests and typically nest near clearings around marshes and lakeshores.  The Merlin primarily preys on small birds but will also take insects and an occasional small mammal.

These falcons are medium- to long-distance migrants and many will spend the winter in the southern United States or northern South America.  A few birds remain in the north year around.

Merlins were once called Pigeon Hawks due to a resemblance to a pigeon in flight.  Noblewomen, such as Catherine the Great and Mary Queen of Scots used Merlins for hunting and the bird became known as a Ladyhawk.

My own sightings of Merlins have been very brief and quite frustrating.  A typical example occurred many years ago when my brother and I spent a few days before Christmas camping on Maryland’s eastern shore near Chincoteague Island, Virginia.  At dawn, we hiked the beach and as we came over a sand dune, we saw a large mixed flock of mainly Dunlin and Sanderling working the tide line.  A Merlin flew in low and flushed the birds.  A second Merlin came in from above and easily captured a Dunlin in the confusion and both falcons flew out of sight over the dunes.  The whole thing took about 15 seconds.  Since then, the only Merlins I’ve seen have been little streaks of brown moving out of sight at a high rate of speed.  They make Kestrels look like snails in comparison!

Recently, I found this migratory Merlin perched with his recent kill.  He lived up to his pugnacious reputation by staring me down and leaning toward me, daring me to try and take his lunch!  I took his picture instead.





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Categories: Birds, Florida | Tags: , | 38 Comments

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38 thoughts on “MERLIN – Falco columbarius

  1. Super images of such a wonderful bird, Wally. It really looks built for speed!

  2. What a stunning creature, and capture!! I adore these raptors. Just magnificent.

  3. Wonderful captures. The long streaks of feathering on breast and legs stand out as well as the large eyes. Having never observed a Merlin I now know exactly what they look like.

  4. Great shots! I’ll have to work on sneaking up on one around here. They are never close enough for a portrait!

  5. Wow, Wally, these are outstanding captures of the Merlin! What a beautiful little falcon it is! I haven’t seen one in a few years. Thanks for all the great info on this species!

  6. Amazing pictures and what big eyes it has. Certainly staring you down.

  7. A very handsome bird!

  8. Anonymous

    HI Wally For me, this was a very interesting, informative post with fantastic photographs. I have seen a Merlin twice however never with all that good views. I am hoping someday I will.

  9. Even when he’s fiercely staring you down he is cute….those eyes! Wonderful to get a picture of a bird that has eluded you for some while … and you got some great ones.

  10. Now you’ve made me really jealous Wally. You so accurately describe what a frustrating beast the Merlin can be to watch and to photograph but you certainly “nailed” this one. I’m interested to hear that in NA the Merlin is “adapting to human habitation and have learned to use suburban areas for nesting and wintering”. I can’t see that happening here in the UK but I hope it does.

    You made a good decision with Ten Thousand Birds:OSD. Set aside a week or more, you won’t be able to put it down.

  11. Wally, these are phenomenal shots! That intense stare, the yellow coloring, the striping on the breast and legs–all are so beautiful. Gosh, I thought kestrels were hard to spot and photograph. Sounds like I don’t have a chance with this guy. I’ve never seen one here that I know of! I so enjoy all the information you furnish with your images as well. 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Gail! Like us, your best chance for seeing a Merlin would be during migration near the shore or maybe a sod field where shorebirds gather as they love to dine on them!

  12. As alway Wally, a very interesting post, and great shots of the Merlin, it looks like its prey is furry rather than feathery, its a while since I’ve seen one.
    All the best Gordon.

    • Thank you, Gordon! You can see it’s prey has bird-type talons and there is down in the Merlin’s beak, so it’s a bird of some sort, just not sure what!

  13. Excellent….a few years now, each year, a Merlin utilized a dead cottonwood tree for its dinner table…now, the neighbor cut down the dead tree, and I’m wondering it it’ll even show up this year. Great photos.

    AND!!! Thanks so much for enlightening me on the difference between a Downy and Ladderback…now that you clarified the IDing procedure and traits…I can see they’re two different woodpeckers. and will go add an addendum to my post when I find some time..

  14. Wow, awesome shots of the Merlin! They are cool!

  15. Fantastic Wally, this is a very special post!
    You can be proud and happy with these pics, I know how difficult it is to manage that!
    The eye sight they have must be extraordinary!

  16. . . . and I know how much you wanted his lunch. Stunning photo. He’s giving you that Robert DeNiro “You talkin’ to me?” look. The yellow is beautiful. Must have been satisfying to get him in your lens.

  17. Ron Dudley

    Dang neat, Wally – so jealous. I only have a couple of shots of the species and they’re mediocre. These are very good. I’d love to have witnessed this, even if I didn’t get the shots. Interesting about the Ladyhawk name – that was new for me. Congrats!

    • Ron, I’m reminded of something about a blind pig – but thank you for the really nice comments! Hopefully, will find another one sometime in the next 30 years!

  18. what an adorable (er, fierce) little thing! huge eyes! had no idea they were barely bigger than a kestrel.

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