Scientific name: Falco colombarius


Merlins are the UK’s smallest falcon, with a wingspan of 50-67 cm.  They have broad-based, pointed wings and a relatively long tail.  Males are smaller than females and have blue-grey upperparts and a reddish-brown breast with dark streaks and very dark primary flight feathers.  Females have brown upperparts and a heavily streaked pale buff breast and barred tail.   They fly with rapid wing beats and occasional glides and hover in the manner of a kestrel when searching for prey.

Habitat and Distribution

Merlins are traditionally found in upland and coastal moorland habitats, but are increasingly moving into conifer plantations.  In the winter they move to lowland areas, in particular coastal salt marshes and farmland.  They are very widely distributed and are found across most of Europe, Asia and North America.

Global distribution of the merlin (IUCN 2011)


Merlins mainly prey on small birds such as pipits, chaffinches and wheatears, although they will occasionally take larger birds such as mistle thrushes.  They also take small mammals such as voles and bats, and insects.  They often hunt close to the ground and have occasionally been seen stalking prey on foot.


British merlins are, for the most part, a ground-nesting species, traditionally found on heather moorland, however they are increasingly choosing to nest in trees on the fringes of maturing conifer plantations.  Ground nesting is unique to the British population.  The breeding season begins in May-June.  The female makes a small scrape in the ground which she lines with suitable nesting material, into which she lays 3-5 eggs.  The incubation period is 29-32 days, carried out mainly by the female, with the male normally doing all of the hunting until the young fledge, at 25-32 days.  Ground-nesting merlin chicks normally disperse into the surrounding vegetation a couple of weeks before fledging.  Once they have fledged the young continue  to be fed by their parents for another month.

Status and Threats

Merlins are classified by the IUCN as ‘Least Concern’.  However, within the UK many of its former breeding sites have been planted with commercial forest.  The ability to adapt to tree nesting should help the species to combat this.  Merlins were the bird of prey most severely affected by organochlorine pesticides such as DDT in the UK and recovery has been very slow.

Merlins are strictly protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004.  They are also included on the Amber List of UK birds of conservation concern.  It is an offence to intentionally take, injure or kill a merlin or to take, damage or destroy its nest, eggs or young. It is also an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb the birds close to their nest during the breeding season.  Violation can result in a fine of up to £5000 and/or a prison sentence of up to 6 months.