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Is the Merlin right for you?

Species group:

Other common names: Pigeon Hawk

Scientific name: Falco columbarius

The basics:
A traditional bird of English falconry once flown by aristocratic women, the Merlin is a smaller falcon known for preying on small birds. A hunting technique called “larking” showed off the Merlin's speed and maneuverability as it literally flew in circles around the fleeing English skylark in its effort to get high enough to stoop on its prey. In North America, the Merlin is used to pursue invasive small bird species such as House Sparrow and European Starling.

The widespread, highly successful Merlin breeds in the far north but can migrate a long way to escape a brutal northern Canadian or Siberian winter – as far south as northern South America or northern Africa in some cases. Both the New World and the Old World forms are currently considered to be the same species, representing as many as nine subspecies. The old-fashioned name, “Pigeon Hawk” was not meant to imply that this falcon captured pigeon-sized prey but was apparently given because some people thought the bird resembled a pigeon in flight.

Because of the licensing and expertise required to be a responsible owner of a bird of prey, the following information is offered only as a hint of what you will need to learn to work with Merlins. There is no substitute for hands-on training, which we strongly recommend that you pursue before trying to acquire any bird of prey.

Merlins lack the moustache mark seen in most falcons. Females are much larger than their mates, with dark brown backs and upper wing coverts. Adult males have blue-gray backs and upper wing coverts.

Male: 155 grams (5.5 0z.)
Female: 210 grams (7.4 oz.)

Average size:
Male: 26 centimeters (10 in.)
Female: 29 centimeters (11 in.)

11+ years

Behavior / temperament:
Although often classed as a smaller falcon, Merlins are heavier for their size than Kestrels, and they pack a lot of power in a small package. They are widely admired for their speed and their eagerness to chase birds over open country, which means that they can easily be lost without the use of a special transmitter designed for this species.

Although a smaller falcon, the Merlin is still a longwing and should not be shortchanged on space to spread its wings. A good pen, aviary, or mews will provide shade from direct sunlight in the summer, protection from extremes of winter weather, and good security to lock out thieves. A roof that completely covers the structure is stronger and offers more protection from high winds. Like most birds of prey, they will enjoy some clean, shallow water for bathing.

The Merlin is a carnivore that needs to consume some whole prey in order to allow its digestive system to work properly. In the wild, they capture small birds, supplemented by large insects. A good captive diet might include House Sparrows, Coturnix quail, and European Starlings. With smaller falcons, you need an excellent scale and the training to understand what their weight should be and what to do about it – something you should get from hands-on experience with a more advanced falconer or rehabilitator, not from a short article. They should also be provided with clean water.

Written by Elaine Radford

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