• Skip to Content
  • Skip to Main Navigation
  • Skip to Local Navigation
  • Skip to Search
  • Skip to Sitemap
  • Skip to Footer
Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Merlin

Falco columbarius ORDER: FALCONIFORMES FAMILY: FALCONIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Merlin Photo

Merlins are small, fierce falcons that use surprise attacks to bring down small songbirds and shorebirds. They are powerful fliers, but you can tell them from larger falcons by their rapid wingbeats and overall dark tones. Medieval falconers called them “lady hawks,” and noblewomen used them to hunt Sky Larks. Merlin populations have largely recovered from twentieth-century declines, thanks to a ban on the pesticide DDT and their ability to adapt to life around towns and cities.

Be a Better Birder Tutorial 4
Learn About Celebrate Urban Birds!

Keys to identification Help

Hawks
Hawks
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Merlins are small falcons with a powerful build that is broader and stockier than the slightly smaller American Kestrel. Merlins have sharply pointed wings, a broad chest, and a medium length tail.

  • Color Pattern

    Merlins are generally dark and streaky, though their coloration varies geographically and by gender. Adult male Merlins are slaty gray to dark gray; females and immatures are browner. The chest is usually heavily streaked and the underwings are dark. The dark tail has narrow white bands, and the face often lacks a prominent malar or “mustache” stripe.

  • Behavior

    Merlins are fierce, energetic predators that patrol shorelines and open areas looking for their prey of small birds (and sometimes dragonflies). They fly powerfully, with quick wingbeats, pausing to glide only rarely. They also spend long periods perched in open areas, scanning for prey.

  • Habitat

    Merlins nest in forested openings, edges, and along rivers across northern North America. They have also begun nesting in towns and cities. During migration and winter, be on the lookout for Merlins in open forests, grasslands, and especially coastal areas with flocks of small songbirds or shorebirds.

Range Map Help

Merlin Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male (Taiga)

    Merlin

    Adult male (Taiga)
    • Pigeon-sized falcon, muscular and lean
    • Slaty-blue/gray cap and wings
    • Thin white eyebrow with dark eye
    • No distinct facial pattern
    • Taiga subspecies most common in eastern U.S. and Canada
    • © Christopher L. Wood, Monroe County, New York, March 2010
  • Adult female (Taiga)

    Merlin

    Adult female (Taiga)
    • Pigeon-sized falcon, muscular and lean
    • Dark brown back and cap
    • Dark eye and thin. pale eyebrow
    • Dark streaks on breast
    • © Duncan Murray, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, December 2008
  • Adult male (Prairie)

    Merlin

    Adult male (Prairie)
    • Light blue-gray crown
    • Pale face with no distinct pattern
    • Streaked breast
    • Dark eye with pale eyebrow
    • Prairie subspecies occurs in Great Plains states and southern Canada
    • © Cameron Rognan, Washington, Utah, February 2011
  • Adult female (Prairie)

    Merlin

    Adult female (Prairie)
    • Long, pointed wings and shorter tail
    • Pale face with thin white eyebrow and dark eye
    • Belly streaked with pale brown
    • Under-wings boldly marked
    • © Glenn Bartley, Alberta, Canada, May 2009
  • Adult

    Merlin

    Adult
    • Slender, pointed wings
    • Dark mottling on underside
    • Dark charcoal or black back and crown
    • © Tom Johnson, Aurora, New York, November 2009
  • Juvenile

    Merlin

    Juvenile
    • Chubbier than adult
    • Warm brown back and cap
    • Buffy face
    • Streaked breast
    • © Pat Kavanagh, Taber, Alberta, Canada, July 2010
  • Adult male (Taiga)

    Merlin

    Adult male (Taiga)
    • Long wings sharply pointed in flight
    • Blue/gray upper-parts
    • Thick black bands on tail
    • © Christopher L. Wood, Cape May, New Jersey, October 2010
  • Adult (Taiga)

    Merlin

    Adult (Taiga)
    • Sharply pointed wings
    • Dark streaking on breast and belly
    • Black and white banded tail
    • Bold "checkerboard" pattern on underwings
    • © William Jobes, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, September 2008
  • Adult male (Taiga)

    Merlin

    Adult male (Taiga)
    • Slaty blue cap and back
    • Large, dark eye
    • Thin pale eyebrow
    • No distinct facial pattern
    • © Jen St. Louis, Nelson, Campbellville, Ontario, Canada, October 2010

Similar Species

Similar Species

  • American Kestrels are smaller, more slender, and paler than Merlins. They have a strong face pattern with two bold “mustache” stripes that Merlns lack. Kestrels are much less heavily marked below and are warmer reddish-brown on the back than Merlins. Larger species such as Prairie Falcons and Peregrine Falcons are less compact than Merlins, with longer wings and slower wingbeats. They tend to have less heavily streaked underparts than Merlins, and their tails are not as prominently banded. Prairie Falcons have distinct dark “armpit” patches underneath the wings. Peregrine Falcons usually show a much bolder black “mustache” stripe that contrasts with its white throat. Sharp-shinned Hawks have similar coloration to Merlins but very different shape. They are accipiters: they have short, rounded wings and very long tails. In flight Sharp-shinned Hawks usually glide after every few strokes; Merlins flap almost continuously.

Regional Differences

There are three subspecies of Merlins in North America: dark-plumaged “black” Merlins of the Pacific Northwest, pale “prairie” Merlins of northern prairies and aspen parklands, and “boreal” or “taiga” Merlins of northern forests, which have intermediate plumage. Six more subspecies live in Eurasia.

Find This Bird

Merlins are widespread, particularly in migration and winter, but seeing them is unpredictable. They have two modes: scanning open areas patiently from a treetop, and cruising at top speed in pursuit of small birds. If a flock of foraging birds (particularly shorebirds) suddenly bursts into flight, a Merlin or other falcon may be the cause. Be ready to look quickly—Merlins cover a lot of ground and can be out of range in just a few seconds. Scanning treetops and low perches at forest edges, grasslands, or saltmarshes can also turn up a perched Merlin and the opportunity for a longer view. Merlins are also increasingly common around towns, where there is a steady supply of House Sparrows.