Living Bird Magazine
- ORDER: Falconiformes
- FAMILY: Falconidae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Halcón Esmerejón (Spanish)
- Faucon émerillon (French)
- Cool Facts
- Merlin pairs have been seen teaming up to hunt large flocks of waxwings: one Merlin flushes the flock by attacking from below; the other comes in moments later to take advantage of the confusion.
- Merlins don’t build their own nests. Instead, they take over the old nests of other raptors or crows. They also use magpie nests, sometimes laying eggs right on top of the nest’s dome rather than inside the cavity.
- Though it’s not much bigger than the more common American Kestrel, the Merlin is heavier and often appears considerably larger. As with most raptors, female Merlins are larger than males.
- The name “Merlin” comes from esmerillon, the old French name for the species. Merlins used to be called “pigeon hawks” because in flight they look somewhat pigeon-like. Their species name, columbarius, is also a reference to pigeons.
- Medieval European noblewomen—including Catherine the Great and Mary Queen of Scots—used Merlins for sport to hunt Skylarks. European and North American falconers continue to work with Merlins, hunting quarry that ranges from sparrow-sized to dove-sized.
- The oldest known Merlin was a male and at least 11 years, 11 months old. He was banded as an adult in New York in 1982 and recovered in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1993.