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 Merlin- Fact File

female (left), male

Falco columbarius
Scarce and local breeder in north and west of region. More widespread in winter.
Breeds on open moorland. In winter also on coastal fields and marshes.

Small falcon (male smaller than female). Upperparts bluish on male, brownish on female. Quick dashing flight.

25 - 30 cm (10 - 12")


I have had the good fortune to watch merlins in December. The first time was high water at Breydon. Suddenly hundreds of lapwing, redshank and dunlin all took wing, rapidly climbing high above the flooded flats. Next moment, a merlin, after dashing low over the saltings, conveniently alighted on a massive timber stake where is showed to advantage.

A few days later, when studying a great gaggle of thousands of pink-footed geese in north-west Norfolk, a merlin swept by almost within inches of the geese, busily feeding on sugar-beet remains.

But it is only at dusk that one has the opportunity of appreciating just how many merlins are wintering in one locality. I have become familiar with a wilderness of marsh and reeds which is the chosen site for a merlin roost.

My most impressive total has been eight birds, all sitting in the tops of bushes for the long winter night. Silhouetted against the afterglow, these fiercest of hawks formed an impressive picture.

It is not uncommon for merlins to become involved in encounters with other predators over prey. One evening, just as a superb, palest grey cock hen-harrier drifted into view above the reeds, two merlins took wing.

The harrier was then subjected to high-speed aerial attacks for minutes on end. Both merlins repeatedly hurtled past with rapid wingbeats.

Merlins are usually solitary hunters, but two have been observed hunting together. Repeated stoops were made, each diving alternately above a meadow pipit so that the quarry was under continuous attack. The result was inevitable...

Elsewhere in Norfolk, a group of up to four merlins regularly roosts each winter on a large, heathery common-in association with hen harriers. The Ouse Washes, too, have attracted a similar size roost.

Here these fearless falcons have occupied dense willows. Some merlin communal roosts are traditional. One locality, containing up to eight birds, has been in regular occupation for more than a half-century.

During the breeding season, merlins fearlessly assault any large bird that approaches the nest. Even golden eagles and ravens have been attacked.

Splendid aerial displays are described, the birds climbing several hundred feet before stooping at tremendous speed at each other until almost at ground-level when the performance is repeated.

The strikingly small size of the adult male (hardly larger than a mistle thrush) precludes confusion with other falcons. He is further distinguished by blue-grey upper parts. At long range and in poor light immature males and females can be confused with hen kestrels but are more compact with a shorter tail and deep brown, not reddish brown, above. More importantly the flight is very different being much swifter and dashing with rapid wing-beats alternating with intervals of gliding and often within inches of the ground.

Michael J. Seago

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.