Bird of the Month: Merlin

By Hugh Jennings

PC: Mick Thompson (Merlin)

PC: Mick Thompson (Merlin)

Scientific Name: Falco columbarius

Length 10" long

Wingspan 24"

Weight 6.5oz. (190 g)

AOU Band code MERL

The Merlin (MERL) is about 10" long with a wingspan of 24" and a weight of 6.5 oz. (190g). The genus name Falco (FAL-koh) is Latin for hawk, referring to the hooked (falcate) shape of the claws. The species name columbarius (koh-lum-BAY-rih-us) is Latin, pertaining to doves. Its former common name was pigeon hawk because it killed pigeons.

The Merlin is a small falcon with a weak or indistinct mustachial stripe. It is small, compact, powerful and very aggressive. The wings are short and pointed, always angular and most appear dark. It is found in wide-open spaces and open woods and captures birds and insects in midair by a level sprint, ending up with abrupt turns. It has been said that it flies straight like a bullet.

There are three populations that differ in overall color. The Pacific (Black) race is very dark. Males are blue-gray above and have dark brown streaking below. Females are dark brown above with heavy brown streaks below.The Black race winters along the Pacific coast south to California, rarely east to New Mexico. Taiga race sometimes resembles the Black, but the tail is dark with narrow gray bands in tail and pale, buffy undertail and weak mustache. The Taiga birds are widespread and winter along both coasts. The Prairie race is the lightest color and has wide gray bands in tail. This race winters from Canada to Mexico, sometimes west to California

The Merlin feeds primarily on birds, but also on rodents, lizards, snakes and insects. A variety of elaborate aerial maneuvers and calls are used in courtship displays. Food collected by the male may be passed on to the female in midair. The alarm call is a rapid, accelerating series of strident notes, rising then falling, "kikikikiki."

They use the abandoned nest of another bird, a cavity in a tree or cliff, or the ground with no nest materials except for a few green twigs. There are 2 to 7 white eggs with dark marks. Incubation period is 28-32 days and the young fledge 25-35 days later. Incubation is mostly by the female, but the male brings food to the female and incubates while she eats. The female remains with the young most of the time, brooding them when they are small. The male brings food which the female takes from him near the nest and feeds it to the young.

Most of the Pacific Northwest birds are permanent residents. Most other Merlins migrate, some as far as South America. Some prairie birds have become permanent residents in cities on the northern plains.