Lake Milton Raptor Center

Merlin Falcon

Falco columbarius
Merlin Falcon Merlin Falcon Merlin Falcon

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Falconiformes
  • Family: Falconidae
  • Genus: Falco
  • Species: Falco columbarius
  • Geographic Range

    Palearctic, Nearctic, Oriental, Neotropical: This uncommon falcon is found throughtout the Northern Hemisphere. Falco columbarius bendirei: Winter range is located in California, New Mexico and northwestern Mexico.(For summer range see REPRODUCTION).

    Falco columbarius columbarius: Summers in eastern Canada, southward to Michigan and westward to the eastern border of the Great Plains. Winters in the Gulf States, eastern Mexico, northern Venezula, Ecuador and the West Indies.

    Falco columbarius richardsoni: Summer range is located in the interior of western North America. Winters in southern California, northern Mexico and southern Texas.

    Falco columbarius suckleyi: Found in Northwest coast region from northern California to Sitka, Alaska.

    Physical Characteristics

    Length: 10 to 13 inches Wingspan: 24 to 26.50 inches

    Falco columbarius : (Male)Upperparts are slaty blue, purplish, or dark umber-brown streaked with black from the crown to shoulders and back. The tail is barred by dark umber-brown or blackish bands and is tipped in white. Underparts are cream to a rich buff with heavy longitudinally streaks of dark umber-brown or black coloration, except for the throat which is an unmarked white. The sides of the head are bluff with fine darker streakings. The forehead and line above the eye is white. The beak is bluish horn; the cere and feet are chromo yellow; the claws are black; and the iris is deep brown.

    (Female and Young) Similiar to males in markings, the distiction from the male sex lays within the coloration. Upperparts are dark brown. The neck is streaked with lighter brown and the tail is banded in yellow barrs with a white tip.

    Falco columbarius bendirei (Bendire's Merlin): Lighter in the upper region than Falco columbarius columbarius. The tail is black with three white bars.

    Falco columbarius columbarius (American Merlin): (see discription of Falco columbarius ). In the males, the cere and feet turn reddish with age.

    Falco columbarius richardsoni (Richardson's Merlin): Lighter coloration and the tail is marked by five dark and six white bands.

    Falco columbarius suckleyi (Black Pigeon Hawk): Darker in coloration than Falco columbarius columbarius. The throat of the male is streaked with black markings, while the lower body parts are brownish-black with chestnut and white markings. The lower parts of young males and females are heavily marked with dusky and the spotting is either faint or absent from the wings.

    Natural History

    Food Habits

    The merlin preys mainly on small birds of the ground and low vegetation: larks, swallows, finches and an occasional ptarmigan. Some small mammals (no larger than a small rabbit), lizards, snakes, insects, and in North America, dragonflies, also make up a portion of the merlin's diet. The relative proportions of the food are about 80% birds, 5% mammals and 15% insects.


    Males arrive to the breeding area before the females, usually returning to the same general area year after year. Nesting pairs don't necessarily use the same actual site each year. In open country and grassland, nests are generally scrapes located in dense vegetation. In regions of sand dunes, dune grasses may be used to create a nest. Even in wooded areas, nests may be scrapes, but empty crow nests are preferred. During the nesting period, Falco columbarius become highly aggressive towards other raptors and crows in the area. This aggressive behavior towards other predatory birds is beneficial to other woodland song and ground birds in the nesting range; since Falco columbarius hunts only in open country, thereby leaving the woodland birds relatively free from predators during the mating season. Normally the nest contains four to six eggs measuring 1.5 x 1.22 inches. The eggs are laid at two-day intervals. The coloration of the round oval eggs are variations of light buff white almost obscured by a regular pattern of rich chestnut-brown, purple and chocolate blotchings.

    The eggs are laid in early April to early May in the southern ranges and in late May through June in the North. The female is the main incubator, although the male does share in the duties. The incubation period lasts 25-32 days. At the end of the incubation period, the eggs hatch in intervals.

    Quills appear on the young after fourteen days, and by eighteen days the down is almost completely covered with feathers, except in the head region. Flight is achieved at 25-30 days after hatching.

    Upon leaving the nest, the young remain nearby for several weeks until they are mature enough to migrate southward. Within a week's time of leaving the nest, the young are capable of distance flights, and at two weeks' time, they begin to catch insects. By six weeks the young are skilled in catching small birds, and shortly afterwards, they migrate southward from the breeding area. The success rate among the the young is exceptionally high, often three birds per nest survive to continue breeding.

    Falco columbarius : Breeds throughout northern Europe, Asia and North America.

    Falco columbarius bendirei: Breeds in northwestern Alaska to northern Saskatchewan and into northern California.

    Falco columbarius columbarius: Breeds in eastern Canada to the eastern border of the Great Plains and southwards into Nova Scotia and northern Michigan.

    Falco columbarius richardsoni: Breeding range is located in the Great Plains from southern Alberta and the middle of the Saskatchewan valley to northern Montana and North Dakota.

    Falco columbarius suckleyi: Breeding occurs only in western British Columbia and perhaps on Vancouver Island.


    Falco columbarius is not a social bird except in the mating season. During this period, the male and female share duties in raising the young. During incubation, the female remains on the nest while the male does the hunting. Rarely does the male visit the nest, often leaving the prey nearby for the female to retrieve. When the young are older, both male and female share hunting duties. Once the young leave for good, presumably the male and female return to their solitary life style. Flight (similiar to the flight of the swallow) is fast with steady wingbeats, often skimming in a low zigzagging pattern over the ground. Falco columbarius seldom soars. The call is a series of sharp "ki-ki-ki-ki-kee."


    These small falcons favor open country, preferring moors, seashores, sand dunes, marshlands, steppes and deserts. Falco columbarius rarely lives in the forested areas, but will frequently breed in coniferious forests of the Northern Hempisphere.

    Biomes: taiga, temperate grassland, chaparral, desert, temperate coastal

    Economic Importance for Humans


    Falco columbarius occasionally preys upon injurious aricultural insects, such as grasshoppers and crickets. This small falcon has also met much success in falconry. Considered a lady's gaming bird, Falco columbarius is relatively easy to train for small game hunting and usually returned to the wild after a season.


    The diet of Falco columbarius consists mainly of small birds, including many small birds which benefit agriculture and forestry. In the northern the breeding range, Falco columbarius is known to attack small domestic poultry; however, these attacks are quite rare.


    Status: no special status

    Falco columbarius is widely distributed, but nowhere common. This is especially helpful since the bulk of the diet comprises small birds. With expanding human development, however, the breeding habitats and hunting grounds of these falcons are being destroyed rapidly.

    Other Comments

    For many years the species Falco columbarius was thought to be two seperate species: (Euporean) Falco aesalon aesalon and (American) Falco columbarius . It was not until J.L. Peters (1931) realized that Falco aesalon aesalon was actually a sub-species of Falco columbarius . Currently,the species Falco columbarius consists of seven European sub-species and four American sub-species: Falco columbarius bendirei, Falco columbarius columbarius, Falco columbarius richardsoni, and Falco columbarius suckleyi. The sub-species show a difference in range and slight variations in plummage coloration and markings.