Merlin, Falco columbarius

Names

English: Merlin
Scientific: Falco columbarius
German: Merlin
Spanish: Esmerejón
French: Faucon émérillon

Taxonomy and Subspecies

The Eurasian group of subspecies may be a separate species (Falco aeasalon) from those in North America. All over the world, 9 subspecies are recognized [GRIN 2009]. In Europe, two subspecies occur:
  • F.c. subaesalon on Iceland
  • F.c. aesalon in the rest of the European countries where the species is found.
This information is according to [GRIN 2009]. Other sources give a somewhat different distribution. According to [Mebs & Schmidt 2006], F.c. subaesalon occurs on Iceland, the Faeroes, Ireland and the UK and F.c. aesalon in Scandinavia and Russia.

Size

Length: 28-33 cm
Wingspan: 60-67 cm
Weight: Males 155-180 g, Females 190-220g (subspecies F.c. aesalon)

Smallest raptor in Europe.

Maximum Age

Almost 13 years in the wild. [Mebs & Schmidt 2006]

Habitat

The Merlin is a falcon of open habitat like taiga or upland and heather moorland. Also found in agricultural areas, especially during migration and winter.

Distribution

Northern species. In Europe, Merlins breeds in Iceland, Ireland, UK, Scandinavia, the Baltic States, Belarus and Russia. During Winter, Merlins can also found further south.

Migration

Mostly migratory in Europe. Northern populations migrate south during the winter. In Ireland, the UK and on Iceland, a part of the population remains in the breeding areas [Mebs & Schmidt 2006]. Some Merlins reach southern Europe, other stay in central Europe where they often hunt small songbirds in agricultural areas.

Breeding and Reproduction

Capable of breeding when one year old, but not all birds start breeding with one year.
In the UK, in the heather moorlands, the Merlin usually nests in a scrape on the ground [Mebs & Schmidt 2006]. In other regions, Merlins often use old tree nests from other birds like crows or raptors. Merlins also nest on cliffs.
The female lays between 3-6 (normally 4-5) eggs which are incubated for 26-32 days. The young stay in the nest for 27-33 days and after fledging, the young are provided with food by their parents for another 4 weeks.

Food and hunting

The main prey are small birds like songbirds or small shorebirds. Small rodents (voles, lemmings) are less important (up to 10% of the whole diet) [Mebs & Schmidt 2006]. Sometimes also takes other prey like insects, bats or reptiles.
Juvenile birds after fledging also catch large insects like dragonflies [GRIN 2009].
The merlin is a fast and agile hunter who catches birds mostly in flight.

Population

[Mebs & Schmidt 2006] estimate the European population at between 30,870 and 48,405 pairs. About 20,000-30,000 pairs breed in Russia. In Finland, there are between 2,000 and 3,000 pairs, in Norway between 2,500 - 6,500 and in Sweden between 4,200 and 5,700 [Mebs & Schmidt 2006].
For the UK, the RSPB gives a number of 1,330 pairs [RSBP 2009].

Threats

Habitat loss like the destruction of moorland is a serious threat to Merlin populations. In the UK, illegal killing and egg collection still occurs but is at the moment not a major threat. The same is true for contamination with pesticides, although Merlins from northern populations have heavy mercury loads [RSBP 2009].
Increases of Red Fox populations can threaten the breeding success of ground nesting Merlins [Mebs & Schmidt 2006].

Conservation

Critical habitat like moorland must be protected. Destroyed habitat can be restored in many places. And even though dangerous pesticides like DDT are now illegal, constant monitoring of pesticide levels in Merlins (and other raptors) are important to notice negative effects as early as possible. The use of pesticides should be as low as possible. Organic farming should be encouraged.
The illegal killing, even if not a major threat at the moment, should be stopped completely. In the 21st century, such practices should be a thing of the past.

Status IUCN/BirdLife

Least Concern (LC)

Status Global Raptor Information Network

Lower risk

References

[GRIN 2009] Global Raptor Information Network. 2009. Species account: Merlin Falco columbarius. Downloaded from http://www.globalraptors.org on 2 Oct. 2009

[Mebs & Schmidt 2006] Mebs, Theodor & Schmidt, Daniel (2006). Die Greifvögel Europas, Nordafrikas und Vorderasiens. Kosmos Verlag.

[RSPB 2009] RSPB Merlin species account. 2009. Downloaded from http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/m/merlin/index.asp on 03 October. 2009.

Books

Forsman, Dick (1999). The Raptors of Europe and the Middle East A Handbook of Field Identification. Poyser

Mebs, Theodor & Schmidt, Daniel (2006). Die Greifvögel Europas, Nordafrikas und Vorderasiens. Kosmos Verlag.

Websites

BirdLife Species Factsheet for the Merlin

GRIN species account for the Merlin