Merlin

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Image:Merlin.JPG

Common Name: Merlin or Pigeon Hawk
Scientific Name: Falco columbarius

Size: 9.4–13.0 inches (24–33 cm); Wingspan: 20–29 inches (50–73 cm)

Habitat: Northern Hemisphere (North America, Europe and Asia). Most of the Merlin populations are migratory, wintering in warmer regions. Northern European birds move to southern Europe and North Africa, and North American populations to the southern USA to northern South America. In the milder maritime parts of its breeding range, such as Great Britain, the Pacific Northwest and western Iceland, as well as in Central Asia, it will merely desert higher ground and move to coasts and lowland during winter. The migration to the breeding grounds starts in late February, with most birds passing through the USA, Central Europe and southern Russia in March and April, and the last stragglers arriving in the breeding range towards the end of May. Migration to winter quarters at least in Eurasia peaks in August/September, while e.g. in Ohio, just south of the breeding range, F. c. columbarius is typically recorded as a southbound migrant as late as September/October.

Merlins inhabit fairly open country, such as willow or birch scrub, shrubland, but also taiga forest, parks, grassland such as steppe and prairies, or moorland. They are not very habitat-specific and can be found from sea level to the treeline. In general, they prefer a mix of low and medium-height vegetation with some trees, and avoid dense forests as well as treeless arid regions. During migration however, they will utilize almost any habitat.

Status: Least Concern. Global population: 3,000,000 individuals. The overall trend is stable and appears to have increased between 1966 and 2010, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. This increase reflects their recovery from widespread declines in the 1960s due to pesticide contamination. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 3 million, with 44 percent spending some part of the year in Canada, 23 percent in the U.S., and 14 percent wintering in Mexico.

Starting in the late twentieth century, breeding Merlins have been colonizing an increasing number of cities and towns, where they take advantage of abundant House Sparrow population for food and old crow nests for breeding sites. They expanded into New York and northern New England starting in 1995 and now breed across Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Their winter range spread into the northern Great Plains between 1960 and 1990. Their ability to colonize urban areas may be counteracting a decline from habitat loss in other parts of their breeding and wintering ranges.

Diet: Small to medium-sized birds in the 1–2 ounce range. Common prey include Horned Lark, House Sparrow, Bohemian Waxwing, Dickcissel, Least Sandpiper, Dunlin, and other shorebirds. Other prey can include large insects such as dragonflies, bats caught at cave openings, nestling birds, and small mammals. Merlins typically catch them in midair during high-speed attacks. They don’t stoop on birds the way Peregrine Falcons do; instead they attack at high speed, horizontally or even from below, chasing the prey upwards until they tire.

Nesting: Females are noticeably larger than males. The male merlin has a blue-grey back, ranging from almost black to silver-grey in different subspecies. Its underparts are buff- to orange-tinted and more or less heavily streaked with black to reddish brown. The female and immature are brownish-grey to dark brown above, and whitish buff spotted with brown below. Besides a weak whitish supercilium and the faint dark malar stripe—which are barely recognizable in both the palest and the darkest birds—the face of the merlin is less strongly patterned than in most other falcons. Nestlings are covered in pale buff down feathers, shading to whitish on the belly.

Breeding occurs typically in May/June. Though the pairs are monogamous at least for a breeding season, extra-pair copulations have been recorded. Most nest sites have dense vegetative or rocky cover; the merlin does not build a proper nest of its own. Most will use abandoned crow, magpie or hawk nests which are in conifer or mixed tree stands. In United Kingdom moorland, the female will usually make a shallow scrape in dense heather to use as a nest. Others nest in crevices on cliff-faces and on the ground, and some may even use buildings.

Three to six rusty brown eggs are laid. The incubation period is 28 to 32 days. Incubation is performed by the female to about 90%; the male instead hunts to feed the family. The young fledge after another 30 days or so, and are dependent on their parents for up to 4 more weeks. Sometimes first-year merlins (especially males) will serve as a "nest helper" for an adult pair. More than half—often all or almost all—eggs of a clutch survive to hatching, and at least two-thirds of the hatched young fledge. However, as noted above, in years with little supplementary food only one young in 3 may survive to fledging.

Cool Facts: Sexual dimorphism (such as females being larger than males) is common among raptors; it allows males and females to hunt different prey animals and decreases the territory size needed to feed a mated pair.

The name “Merlin” comes from esmerillon, the old French name for the species. Merlins used to be called “pigeon hawks” because in flight they look somewhat pigeon-like. Their species name, columbarius, is also a reference to pigeons. Merlin pairs have been seen teaming up to hunt large flocks of waxwings: one Merlin flushes the flock by attacking from below; the other comes in moments later to take advantage of the confusion.

Merlins were popular with noblewomen from Catherine the Great to Mary Queen of Scots. They were used for sport to hunt skylarks. European and North American falconers continue to work with Merlins, hunting quarry that ranges from sparrow-sized to dove-sized.

SpaceX named its Merlin rocket engine after the Merlin.

There are numerous subspecies of Merlins:

American

  • F. c. columbarius, described by Linnaeus in 1758. Called the Taiga or Tundra merlin. Found in Canada and northernmost USA east of Rocky Mountains, except Great Plains. Migratory, winters in Southern North America, Central America, the Caribbean, and Northern South America from the Guyanas to the northern Andes foothills. Rarely winters in the northern USA
  • F. c. richardsoni, described by Ridgway in 1871. Called the Prairie merlin. Found in the Great Plains from Alberta to Wyoming. It is a resident with some winter dispersal.
  • F. c. suckleyi, described by Ridgway in 1873. Called the Coastal forest merlin or Black merlin. Found on the Pacific coast of North America, from Southern Alaska to Northern Washington state. It is a resident with some altitudinal movements.

Eurasian

  • F. c. aesalon, described by Tunstall in 1771. Found in Northern Eurasia from the British Isles through Scandinavia to central Siberia. The population of northern Britain shows evidence of gene flow from F. c. subaesalon. The British Isles population is resident with the rest being migratory, wintering in Europe and the Mediterranean region to Iran.
  • F. c. subaesalon, described by C.L. Brehm in 1827. Called “smyril” (Faroese) or “smyrill” (Icelandic). Found in Iceland and Faroe Islands. The latter population has some gene flow with F. c. aesalon. It is a resident with some winter dispersal.

• F. c. pallidus, described by Sushkin in 1900. Found on the Asian steppes between Aral Sea and Altay Mountains. It is migratory, wintering in Southern Central Asia and Northern South Asia.

  • F. c. insignis, described by Clark in 1907. Found in Siberia between Yenisei and Kolyma Rivers. It is migratory, wintering in continental East Asia.
  • F. c. lymani, described by Bangs in 1913. Found in the mountains of eastern Kazakhstan and surrounding countries. It is a short-distance migrant.
  • F. c. pacificus, described by Stegmann in 1929. Found in the Russian Far East to Sakhalin. It is migratory, wintering in Japan, Korea and nearby.


This 3D model is found in Songbird Remix Birds of Prey Volume I: Kestrels, Hobbies and Falcons

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