Merlin (Falco columbarius)

Female Merlin - Wasp
Fritton LakeFalconry Centre

The Merlin is the smallest falcon in the UK. The scientific name "columbarius" comes from the Latin for dove (or pigeon) like, refering to its pigeon like appearance in flight (in the US it was called the Pigeon Hawk). The English name derives from the Old French name of the bird - "esmerrilon".

The Merlin is found throughout the Northern hemisphere, spending the breeding season & summer in the more northern reaches as far up as the top of Scandinavia & Iceland. A few are found to breed in the UK. During the autumn, they migrate south to the central parts of mainland Europe as far across as Turkey & the Middle East, with some reaching as far south as Northern Africa.

The Merlin is known to be very bold, often taking prey larger than itself. They feed primarily on birds, occasionally feeding on small mammals, reptiles & insects. Rather than stooping on the prey, merlins prefer tail-chasing & still-hunting from a suitably placed branch or post. In tail-chasing, they will chase the prey from behind and then put on a sudden burst of speed to catch the prey. During the chase, the merlin will follow every manouevre of the prey during the chase. The undulating flight pattern, with quick bursts of flapping interspersed with short glides, resembles that of harmless pigeons, which may enable the Merlins to get closer to their prey. If the prey proves too difficult to catch during the tail-chase, then the merlin may choose to gain height and attack by stooping. Older, more experienced merlins will often attack a flock of birds, singling out the young & weak when the flock disperses. Merlins will often hunt in pairs, quite often the male & female breeding pair.

Merlins are very agile in flight, capable of remarkable aerial manoeuvres, often rapidly changing direction.

The merlin was once common throughout the British moorlands, from the South-West of England through to the Shetlands. The population declined to around 550 pairs between 1950's & 1980's, probably due to organochloride pesticides (e.g. DDT), habitat loss or deterioration & by illegal killing. In 1994, the estimated UK population around 1700 individual birds. The current threats in this country are seen to be caused by ecological deterioration & loss of their breeding habitat, this is also reducing the food supply in those areas. Because of the maintenance of hunting areas & being too small to be seen as a threat, the Merlin has actually benefited from moorland gamekeeping practices, rather than suffered. The Merlin is a species protected by special penalties in the UK, if kept in captivity, it must be ringed & registered.

In this country they are usually ground nesting, though there is evidence that due to modern farming practice & loss of habitat, they are adapting to tree nesting, which is the more common nesting site in Scandinavia & Russia. The females breed from the age of one, starting to lay their eggs from early May in their southern breeding regions (such as the UK) to late May in Scandinavia carrying on until mid-June. Usually 3 to 5 eggs are laid, with incubation starting from the first egg laid. Each egg is incubated for around 26 days. The chicks remain in the nest after hatching for 4-5 weeks & are fully independent in around another 4 weeks.

The oldest Merlin on record from a European ringing study was 12yrs 8months old.

Falconry Terms :

Jack : Male

IUCN Red List Status :

Least Concern (LC)

AOU Data :

Species Number : 357.0
Alpha Code : MERL
Common Name : Merlin
Longevity Record : 11yrs 11months

Also Called :

Rock Hawk
Rock Falcon
Stone Falcon
(Small) Blue Hawk
Stone Hawk
Hawk Kestrel
Rock Kestrel
Pigeon Hawk (chiefly US, in UK also used for goshawk & sparrowhawk)
Bod glas
Cudyll bach
Cudyll glas bach
Scottish Mèirneal
Irish Meirliún
Catalan Esmerla
Danish Dværgfalk
Dutch Smelleken
Esperanto Kolombfalko
Estonian Väikepistrik
Finnish Ampuhaukka
French Faucon Émerillon
Greek Νανογέρακας
Hungarian Kis sólyom
Icelandic Smyrill
Italian Smeriglio
Lappish (Sami) Cizašfálli
Purva Piekūns
Purva Vanadziņš
Lithuanian Startsakalis
Norwegian Dvergfalk
Polish Drzemlik
Portuguese Esmerilhão
Romanian Şoim de iarna
Russian Дербник (Derbnik)
Spanish Esmerejón
Swedish Stenfalk
Inupiaq (Alaskan Eskimo) Tinmiagruum Kirgavia
Dominican Republic Halconito

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