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Key facts

Scientific name: Falco columbarius
Status: Resident breeding species

Breeding birds: 900-1,500 pairs

Conservation status: Red

Family: Falcons

Length: 25 – 30 cm
Wingspan: 50 – 62 cm
Weight: 125 – 300 g
Typical lifespan: 3 years

What do merlins look like?

Adult male merlins have blue-grey upperparts, and dark grey tails with a black terminal bar. On the underparts, the breast, belly, and undertail are pale buff to rust with white streaks. They have dark flight feathers on the upper wings and barred dark grey and white underwings.

On the head, the crown is blue-grey with a white stripe above the eye. The cheeks and nape are pale buff, and the chin and throat are white. The hooked bill is grey with a yellow cere, the eyes are dark brown with a thin yellow eye-ring, and the legs and feet are yellow.

Female merlins are larger than the males. The upperparts are browner with a grey lower back, rump, and upper tail. The upper wings are more spotted than the males and the head is brown rather than grey.

Juvenile merlins look similar to adult females but have darker brown upper parts, grey-brown eyes, and greenish legs and feet.

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How do merlins breed?

Merlins breed between May and June. They are solitary nesters and typically monogamous and produce one brood per season. If clutches are lost, they will often lay a replacement. Usually, merlins nest in trees in the old stick nests of corvid, but will also use cavities in trees, and cliff ledges.

However, in the UK most merlins nest on the ground, which is unique to the UK population, although since the 1970s they have started to nest in conifer trees. The female builds the nest which is a shallow scrape in the ground lined with twigs, heather, and other plant matter.

Merlins lay 3-6 white or pale buff eggs marked with reddish-brown spots which are incubated for 28-32 days mainly by the female. She also defends the nest, while the male brings her food. Chicks are covered in brown and white down and are fed by both parents. They fledge at 28-32 days but if hatched on the ground will leave the nest earlier at about 18-20 days and hide in nearby undergrowth away from predators.

At this stage they can catch insects but rely on their parents for food for another 5 weeks. Female merlins reach sexual maturity at a year, and males at 2 years.

What do merlins eat?

Merlins are predators of birds including sparrows, thrushes, warblers and small to medium-sized songbirds. They will also eat small mammals such as bats, squirrels, mice and voles as well as reptiles and amphibians.


Where can I see merlins?

Merlins can be seen in the UK all year round. In breeding season they can be found in the uplands of Scotland, Wales, and northern England on moorland but also in conifer plantations. In winter they are joined by birds from Northern Europe and move to lowland areas as far as south-west England. Look out for them in reedbeds, boggy areas, salt marshes, farmland, and heathland.

What do merlins sound like?

Lauri Hallikainen/xeno-canto

Did you know?

In North America merlins used to be known as ‘pigeon hawks’, not because they prey on pigeons, but because in flight they look somewhat pigeon-like. Their species name, columbarius, is also a reference to pigeons.

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11 Responses

  1. A kestrel seen in my garden on the outskirts of Bolton, Lancashire to-day. I have lived here for 35 years, often watching the birds that come to my garden, but I have never seen a kestrel before.

    1. We have had a Merlin in our garden a few times in North Cornwall since the summer 2023. She has taken a few sparrows and possibly a juvenile blackbird. She is beautiful.

  2. I’ve seen a Merlin in Colchester today. Roosting on a tree.

    Gorgeous female, looked similar to a kestrel whilst perched.

  3. We had a Merlin in our garden yesterday in Runcorn, Cheshire.. My chickens were free ranging, I was horrified incase it was going to attack them. I have large breeds but also bantams.

  4. A Merlin – like ?bird came to visit our bird table and perched for only a few seconds on a nearby pot. This bird though’ didn’t seem familiar to me. It was about a 12 inches high ,had a rusty brown breast down to its legs and when it did fly off it had a conspicuous white patch on its back. Any ideas.

  5. I’ve just seen one of these beautiful birds try to land at our large bird feeder in Scholar Green, East Cheshire. She tried to land while sparrows were feeding.

  6. We have seen a Merlin for the first time this morning at Capel Le Ferne, Folkestone Kent, , what a beautiful bird, it was watching a group of Sparrow’s feeding.

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