Length: 9-11 in. (male); 11-12 in. (female)
Weight: 4.5-6.6 oz. (male); 6.4-8.3 oz. (female)
Wingspan: 21-23 in. (male); 24-27 in. (female)
Common Names: pigeon hawk, little blue corporal, bullet hawk
Etymology: falco (Latin) - refers to sickle-shaped talons or the shape of the wings in flight; columbarius (Latin) - refers to dove or pigeon, which it resembles in flight
Description: Smaller than a
larger than the American kestrel.
The adult male merlin is blue-gray above and streaked below (gives a checker board appearance from below).
The female is brown with a streaked breast. Juveniles resemble the adult females. Both sexes have long
pointed wings and tapered tails that are boldly barred. All plumages lack the dark facial mustache markings
of the peregrine falcon
and the American kestrel
and instead have a faint malar stripe.
Flight: Flight speed while flapping is 30-40 mph. Soars low to the ground when
hunting, plucking prey out of the air with its talons. Soars on flat wings, glides on flat or with wrists
lowered and wingtips up-curved. Hunts with short dashing flights, more rapid wing beat than
peregrine or prairie falcons.
Voice: Similar to the
American kestrel, a series
of loud, crackling ki-ki-ki-ki-kee. The female food call is a series of
Habitat: Open grasslands, shrubby barrens and bogs. Hunts around marshes and along
edges of lakes and ponds.
Distribution: From Alaska to Nova Scotia, and California to Florida. However, very
rare in the midwest and the eastern seaboard states. Circumboreal - breed in Alaska, most of Canada, parts
of north and western United States.
Nesting: They often use old nests of crows and hawks. The nest is usually 15-35
feet above the ground. The female will lay 2-7 eggs. Incubation period is 28-32 days and the young fledge
25-30 days after hatching. Primarily monogamous (nest fidelity), sometimes nest on ground, especially north.
Food: When hunting, merlins tend to soar low to the ground, plucking prey out of
the air with their talons. They also use tail-chasing, power dives, ringing flight and surprise attacks.
Prefers tail chasing, tracking prey from behind and overcoming it with a great burst of speed. Merlins
like to ambush prey, potentially while prey is eating or vulnerable. They can catch two birds at once.
Merlins average 80% birds-larks, flickers, waxwings and sparrows. During migration along the coast, they
eat more shorebirds. Their success rate catching birds is about 20-25%. Juveniles will often eat large
numbers of dragonflies. During the winter and sometimes during breeding season, merlins will cache food
for later consumption.