Merlin

Another magic bird of prey. It is Europe's smallest falcon of the open countryside. The Merlin has for centuries been well regarded as a falconry bird with its small bird catching ability. Being small, it was known as lady's falcon in medieval times.

The Merlin has a typical falcon shape with triangular pointed wings. It is smaller than a Kestrel and not much bigger than a pot bellied Mistle Thrush. It is easy to tell apart from a Kestrel as it doesn't hover. The Merlin has a blue-grey back and a rusty streaked breast. The pointed wings are dark at the ends and their is a striking black band at the end of the tail. The female is larger and has a browner back. The Merlin flies close to the ground in a direct dashing flight with short powerful wing beats followed by glide.

Merlins usually hunt alone, chasing birds with agile twists and turns and catching them in the air. It is a fast and magical chase to watch. It eats small birds like Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Chaffinches and Thrushes. It will also feed on voles, bats, moths and beetles. Merlins rely on their speed and agility to hunt their prey by flying fast and low, typically less than one metre above the ground, using trees and large shrubs as cover before taking their prey by surprise.

Merlin breeding occurs typically in May/June. They nest on the ground amongst moorland heather or in old crow nests. The 3-5 eggs hatch after 28 days both mum and dad incubate the eggs. Initially mum tends the young while dad gets food, issuing a "kek, kek, kek" call near the nest. After 18 days the young Merlins leave the nest and hide somewhere nearby. They can fly at 25 days and depend on mum and dad for 4 weeks. Crows are the the primary threat to eggs and nestlings, though in general carnivorous birds avoid Merlins due to their aggressiveness and agility. Their desire to drive larger raptors away from their territory is so pronounced that it is an identifying characteristic.

There are 1300 pairs in Britain. In winter, they move south from their moorland breeding grounds to lowland areas like coastal salt marshes. Some Merlins from Northern Europe also overwinter here. By far the most serious long-term threat to these birds is habitat destruction, especially in their breeding areas. Ground-nesting populations in moorland have a preference for tall heather, and are thus vulnerable to over management by burning or sheep grazing. They are specially protected.

Their Latin name is 'falco columbarius' where 'falco' derives from the Latin 'falx' or 'falcis' for a sickle, referring to the claws of falcons and 'columbarius' is Latin for 'of doves' from 'columba' meaning 'dove'. The English name Merlin is derived from Anglo-Norman 'merilun' or 'meriliun'. They were once colloquially known as a 'pigeon hawk' from their bird catching ability.

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