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Falco columbarius

Status: Lower risk

Population Trend: Increasing.

Other Names: Altai Merlin (F.c. lymani), Black Merlin (suckleyi), Common Merlin (F.c. aesalon), Eastern Pigeon Hawk (columbarius), Richardson's Merlin, Richardson's Pigeon Hawk (richardsoni), Steppe Merlin (F.c. pallidus).

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Falco columbarius
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Distribution: Indomalayan/Nearctic/Palearctic. Northern Eurasia from Scandinavia to SIBERIA south to BRITISH ISLES and east to northern CHINA and North America from northwestern ALASKA east through most of CANADA to Newfoundland, south to northern UNITED STATES (Oregon, Wyoming, Minnesota); winters throughout Europe and south to northern Africa (TUNISIA), northern India, and in the Americas south to South America (northern PERU, VENEZUELA) and West Indies. more....

Subspecies: 9 races. F. c. aesalon: Northern EURASIA from the FAEROES east to western SIBERIA south to ESTONIA; winters in southern and western Europe, TURKEY, Middle East, and northwestern Africa; F. c. columbarius: NORTH AMERICA, except Pacific Coast and Great Plains; winters in MEXICO south through CENTRAL AMERICA, northern SOUTH AMERICA, and WEST INDIES; F. c. insignis: SIBERIA east of the Yenisey River to the Kolyma River, wintering south to SAKHALIN ISLAND and eastern CHINA; F. c. lymani: Central ASIA in TURKESTAN, eastern RUSSIA (Altai), MONGOLIA, and northwestern CHINA; F. c. pacificus: Russian Far East and SAKHALIN ISLAND, wintering south to CHINA and northern JAPAN; F. c. pallidus: Steppes of ASIA from near the Aral Sea to the Altai Mountains; F. c. richardsoni: Great Plains of CANADA (central Alberta) south to UNITED STATES (Wyoming, Idaho); F. c. subaesalon: ICELAND; F. c. suckleyi: Pacific coast of North America from ALASKA, CANADA (British Columbia) to UNITED STATES (northern Washington). more....

Taxonomy: Formerly placed in a separate genus, Aesalon. Possibly most closely related to F. chicquera. Wink and Sauer-Gürth (2000, 2004) found substantial sequence divergence (2% distance) in the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene between F. c. columbarius and F.c. aesalon, which, along with distributional, size, and plumage differences, may justify treating them as separate species. Johnsen et al. (2010) also found that Scandinavian and North American populations exhibited divergent genetic clusters, using the COI barcode as a standardized marker.

Movements: Partial migrant (Bildstein 2006). Northernmost populations are long distance migrants, and Merlins are also altitudinal migrants in some areas. more....

Habitat and Habits: Breeds mostly in open country, including taiga, plains, and prairies, but also at the edges of coniferous woodlands, wooded steppe, and occasionally in suburban habitats. On its wintering range, it prefers open areas with scattered groups of trees, including old parks, orchards, and windbreaks; also found in marshlands and river valleys and avoids dense forest (Adamian and Klem 1999, Kren 2000). In winter, this species may roost in small groups (e.g., Dickson 1973, Warketin and James 1990, Grattini et al. 2006). more....

Food and Feeding Behavior: Preys mainly on small birds, but also takes bats, lizards, insects, and, rarely, small mammals. Dragonflies and other insects are an important part of the diet during summer and fall, especially for young birds. Merlins typically capture prey after a rapid glide, usually no more than a meter off the ground, and some attempts may involve prolonged tail-chases lasting several minutes. Occasionally, Merlins will circle at a height of 200-300 m and stoop on prey in the style of a peregrine, and they probably capture some prey (e.g., wader chicks) on the ground (Wright 2005). more....

Breeding: In some areas, nests are simple scrapes on the ground, but in others, the old nests of other birds, principally corvids or other raptor species, are used. Average clutch size for several North American populations was 4.8 eggs (Temple 1970) and 4.2 eggs in two studies in Great Britain (Newton et al. 1986, Wright 2005). The incubation period ranges from 28-32 days (Wright op cit.), and most incubation is done by the female, although the male may incubate for up to one-third of the time. The male provides all of the food until the nestlings no longer need to be constantly brooded. Fledgling periods from 23-35 days have been reported, although the mean fledging age in Wright's study was 25 days (23-28). The young remain dependent on the adults for up to five weeks after fledging. more....

Conservation: Now widespread and common throughout most of its range after suffering pesticide-induced population declines in Western Europe, North America, and probably other parts of its vast range in the 1960s and 1970s. In recent years, the breeding range of North American Merlins has expanded along a broad front south of the Canadian-United States border, e.g., the species now nests regularly in New England, where it was previously known only as a migrant (MacLeod 2009). The European breeding population was stable from 1970-1990, but there was a slight decline in Sweden during 1990-2000. Other populations (Iceland, United Kingdom, Norway, Finland, and Russia) were stable or increased, and the species probably remained stable overall. It is evaluated as "Secure" in Europe by BirdLife International (2004). Merlins are increasingly found in urban settings in many parts of their winter range, where they may be attracted by the large numbers of small birds visiting bird feeders. The Merlin is categorized globally as a species of "Least Concern" by BirdLife International. more....

Population Estimates: The European population was estimated at 37,000 to 55,000 breeding pairs by BirdLife International/European Bird Census Council (2000) and later at 39,000 to 49,000 breeding pairs (BirdLife International 2004). more....

Important References: 
BirdLife International/European Bird Census Council. 2000. European bird
  populations: estimates and trends. BirdLife Conservation Series no. 10.
  BirdLife International,Cambridge, UK.
Cade, T.J. 1982. Falcons of the world. Cornell University Press, Ithaca,
Ferguson-Lees, J., and D.A. Christie. 2001. Raptors of the world. Houghton
  Mifflin, Boston, MA.
Orchel, J. 1992. Forest Merlins in Scotland: their requirements and
  management. Hawk and Owl Trust, London.
Sodhi, N.S., L.W. Oliphant, P.C. James, and I.G. Warkentin. 1993. Merlin
  (Falco columbarius). In A. Poole and F. Gills (eds.), The Birds of North
  America no. 44. The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and
  American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
White, C.M. 1994. Merlin. P. 267 in del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott, and J.
  Sargatal (eds). Handbook of birds of the world. Vol. 2. New World vultures
  to guineafowl. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
Wright, P.M. 2005. Merlins of the South-east Yorkshire Dales. Tarnmoor
  Publications, Skipton, North Yorkshire, England.

Sites of Interest:
Merlin photos.
Merlin Falcon Foundation
Supports a citizen science investigation of the Coastal Forest Merlin (Falco columbarius suckleyi).
Species account, with an emphasis on European populations.
Aves de Rapina do Brasil
Species account with emphasis on Brazil.

Atkinson, Eric
Cayo Cervantes, Biol. Luis Alberto
Davis, Kate
Enderson, James
Goodrich, Laurie
Ivanovski, Vladimir
McIntyre, Carol
Mojica, Libby
Moore, Stan
Newton, Ian
Ospina, Alex
Rodríguez Santana, Freddy
Schröpfer, Libor
Smith, Jeff
Tingay, Ruth
Varland, Dan
Wiley, James

Last modified: 7/28/2011

Recommended Citation: Global Raptor Information Network. 2021. Species account: Merlin Falco columbarius. Downloaded from http://www.globalraptors.org on 18 Oct. 2021

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