Photo Credit: Bill Horn
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Falco columbarius
DESCRIPTION: Merlins are one of the smaller raptors found in North America. The Merlin is also known as the “pigeon hawk” but is not closely related to hawks. The Merlin is a falcon that is approximately 9-13 inches in length with a wing span of 21-27 inches. Like most birds the males and females have different coloration. The males are a grayish blue to dark brown on their backs. They have dark brown to blackish streaks running from the crown of their heads down to their shoulders and back. The under parts are a cream or buff color with vertical dark brown to blackish streaks. The males have an unmarked white throat and the tail is barred with dark brown or blackish bands and has a white tip. In contrast, the females have dark brown backs, light brown streaks on their throat and a dark tail with buff colored bars and a white tip. Both sexes have yellowish legs and feet and a bluish, hooked beak.
DISTRIBUTION: There are three subspecies of the Merlin that are found in North America. The three subspecies are falco columbarius suckleyi, falco columbarius richardsoni and falco columbarius columbarius with the later one occurring in the southeast. Merlins that are found in Alabama during the winter spend their summers in east Canada, south to Michigan and west to the eastern border of the Great Plains. During the winter they migrate to the Gulf States and eastern Mexico.
HABITAT: Merlins rarely live in heavily forested areas. They favor open country such as grasslands, seashores, sand dunes, marshlands and deserts. However, during their breeding period they often use coniferous forests.
FEEDING HABITS: Merlins primarily hunt in open country where they prey upon small ground birds such as larks, sparrows, finches, ptarmigans and grouse. They will also eat small mammals, lizards, snakes and insects, but they comprise a small proportion of a merlin’s diet.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Merlin nesting pairs return to the same general area each year but not necessarily the same site. Merlins do not build their own nests but prefer to use old nests of other birds such as crows or to use old nests in grasses or dense low vegetation. During this nesting period, Merlins are known to become extremely aggressive towards other raptors and crows. Four to six eggs are laid between April and June each year. The female is the primary incubator of eggs while males hunt. The male seldom visits nests but leave prey nearby for females to retrieve and feed their young. In twenty-five to thirty-two days the eggs hatch and twenty-five to thirty days after hatching they are capable of flying. Two weeks after they start flying young are capable of catching insects and at six weeks they can catch small birds and are ready to migrate south.
The Merlin is a widely distributed bird but is not common anywhere. Like many species, their breeding habitats and hunting grounds are being rapidly destroyed by urbanization. Special monitoring and other considerations should be given to this unique bird to ensure its future in the wild.
Peterson, R.T. 1980. Peterson Field Guide (Eastern Birds). Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA.
Grove, G. 1999. “Falco columbarius” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/pictures/Falco_columbarius.html