Plants and Animals

Falco columbarius Merlin

species photo
species photo
species photo
Aaron Kortenhoven
species photo
Aaron Kortenhoven
species photo
Aaron Kortenhoven
species photo
Aaron Kortenhoven

Key Characteristics

The Merlin is a medium-sized falcon, about the size of a blue jay, characterized by long, pointed wings and rapid wing-beats; a long, heavily barred tail; vertically streaked underparts; and faint "sideburns". In flight, Merlins appear similar to American kestrels (F. sparverius) but lack any brown tones above or extensive buffy to white underparts. The dark tail with 2-5 highly contrasting narrow light bands helps distinguish the Merlin from the larger Peregrine falcon (F. peregrinus). When alarmed the Merlin utters a rapid series of "ki" notes, similar to other falcons.

Status and Rank

US Status: No Status/Not Listed
State Status: SC - Special Concern (rare or uncertain; not legally protected)
Global Rank: G5 - Secure
State Rank: S3 - Vulnerable


CountyNumber of OccurrencesYear Last Observed
Alger 1 2012
Charlevoix 1 2007
Chippewa 5 2012
Delta 1 2010
Dickinson 1 2016
Huron 1 2017
Kalamazoo 1 2010
Keweenaw 4 2004
Luce 2 2008
Mackinac 1 2018
Mason 1 2020
Mecosta 1 2014
Ottawa 1 2011
Sanilac 1 2013
Schoolcraft 2 2007
St. Clair 1 2015

Information is summarized from MNFI's database of rare species and community occurrences. Data may not reflect true distribution since much of the state has not been thoroughly surveyed.


Nests are frequently near lakeshores or other semi-open areas where prey (small to medium birds) may be captured. Merlins will rarely nest in cavities or on cliffs.

Natural Community Types

For each species, lists of natural communities were derived from review of the nearly 6,500 element occurrences in the MNFI database, in addition to herbarium label data for some taxa. In most cases, at least one specimen record exists for each listed natural community. For certain taxa, especially poorly collected or extirpated species of prairie and savanna habitats, natural community lists were derived from inferences from collection sites and habitat preferences in immediately adjacent states (particularly Indiana and Illinois). Natural communities are not listed for those species documented only from altered or ruderal habitats in Michigan, especially for taxa that occur in a variety of habitats outside of the state.

Natural communities are not listed in order of frequency of occurrence, but are rather derived from the full set of natural communities, organized by Ecological Group. In many cases, the general habitat descriptions should provide greater clarity and direction to the surveyor. In future versions of the Rare Species Explorer, we hope to incorporate natural community fidelity ranks for each taxon.

Management Recommendations

In North America, loss of suitable habitat may be the major factor affecting Merlin populations although pesticide contamination has also played a role. Currently, the Merlin's habitat in Michigan is not seriously threatened and there are no known factors that are critically limiting its present population in the state. In some portions of the country dying or over harvesting of preferred nesting trees in woodlots and shelterbelts is suspected to have impacted Merlin numbers. As such, nesting trees should be protected and human activity within a buffer around nests should be limited.

Active Period

Migration from fourth week of April to third week of May

Migration from first week of August to third week of October

Nesting from third week of May to fourth week of July

Survey Methods

The recommended method for surveying this species is by conducting call playback surveys during the breeding season. Some recommend call playback surveys be done prior to incubation to reduce disruption. Adult Merlins are aggressive toward intruders in the nesting area and defend it with repeated alarm cries. Areas with abandoned crow, raven, or hawk nests should be surveyed in particular.

Play conspecific call

Survey Period: From fourth week of April to fourth week of May

Time of Day: Daytime


Survey References

  • Bibby, C.J., N.D. Burgess, and D.A. Hill. 1992. Bird Census Techniques. Academic Press, New York.

Technical References

  • Cuthrell, D.L. 2002. Special Animal Abstract for Falco columbarius (Merlin). Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Lansing, MI. 3pp.
  • Evers, D.C. 1994. Endangered and Threatened Wildlife of Michigan. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. 412pp.

More Information