Photo of a merlin perched on a Y-shaped branch
Scientific Name
Falco columbarius
Falconidae (falcons) in the order Falconiformes

Merlins are small, powerful falcons. The adult male merlin is blue-gray above and heavily streaked below. The tail is dark with narrow light bands. An indistinct moustache streak is usually present. Females and immatures are brown above. The larger and paler Great Plains form of the Merlin is regular in western Missouri. Merlins in flight flap quickly and continually and rarely glide.

Similar species: Like other falcons, merlins have long, narrow, pointed wings that typically bend back sharply at the “wrist.” But in flight, seen from below, their tails look darker and are more boldly banded than our other falcons. Peregrine and prairie falcons are much larger. American kestrels are smaller and always have two prominent black vertical stripes on their faces, while the merlin’s single mustache stripe is faint. Accipiter hawks, such as Cooper’s and sharp-shinned, have short, rounded wings and longer tails, and they are mostly seen in wooded areas. They typically alternate between a few flaps and gliding.

Other Common Names
Pigeon Hawk; Lady Hawk

Length: 10–12 inches; wingspan: 22–25 inches.

Where To Find
Merlin Distribution Map


Usually seen in grasslands and crop fields near woodlands.

Merlins forage for birds and occasionally for insects by flying swiftly, close to the ground, and overtaking fleeing prey. Merlins often chase a flock of small birds until they overtake the weakest individual in the flock as it lags behind. The merlin is sometimes called the “pigeon hawk,” while the slightly smaller American kestrel is sometimes called the “sparrow hawk.”

Rare migrant; rare winter resident. The common name is derived from the Old French word for the species, “esmerillon.” Although it has the same spelling, this bird’s name is unrelated to the legendary wizard Merlin, whose name is based on a Welsh personal name, Myrddin.

Life Cycle

Present in Missouri during migration: March through May, and September through October. In North America, their summer breeding territory is mostly in Canada and Alaska. Merlins perform breathtaking aerial courtship displays. Merlins don’t build their own nests; instead, they use the former nests of other raptors, crows, or magpies. Clutches comprise 4 or 5 eggs, which are incubated for about a month. After another month, the young are ready to leave the nest. There is only one brood a year. Merlins can live to be at least 11 years old.

Merlins, which occur in Eurasia as well as North America, have a long history in the ancient sport of falconry, and falconers still use merlins to hunt for birds the size of pigeons and smaller. House sparrows and European starlings, both exotic invasive birds in America, are often targeted. Falconers also hunt game birds such as quail and doves; as with any other form of hunting, the current Wildlife Code of Missouri must be followed. Both Catherine and Great and Mary Queen of Scots hunted skylarks with merlins.

Merlins are predators that help to limit the populations of the animals they eat. Their populations have increased in some cities, where they relish the many house sparrows that proliferate near people. In fact, their breeding range has expanded southeastward into New England, in part due to the plentiful house sparrows in cities. Adult merlins are sometimes preyed upon by larger hawks. And as with all animals, the eggs and young are especially vulnerable to predation.

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Similar Species
About Birds in Missouri

About 350 species of birds are likely to be seen in Missouri, though nearly 400 have been recorded within our borders. Most people know a bird when they see one — it has feathers, wings, and a bill. Birds are warm-blooded, and most species can fly. Many migrate hundreds or thousands of miles. Birds lay hard-shelled eggs (often in a nest), and the parents care for the young. Many communicate with songs and calls.