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Monograph on Merlin

Morozov V.V., Bragin Е.А., Ivanovski V.V. Merlin. Vitebsk, 2013. 256 p. (ISBN 978-985-517-382-4)Morozov V.V., Bragin Е.А., Ivanovski V.V. Merlin. Vitebsk, 2013. 256 p. (ISBN 978-985-517-382-4). In Russian with English summary.


The Merlin – the only small falcon with a Holarctic distribution, inhabits moderate and high latitudes of North America and Eurasia. Within the borders of its vast range the species demonstrates high ecological plasticity, breeding in different landscape zones from tundra to the southern steppes and alpine forests of Central Asia both in trees and on the ground. In the Eurasian part of the breeding range there are 5 subspecies: Common or Eurasian Merlin (F.c. aesalon), East-Siberian Merlin (F.c. insigis), Pacific Merlin (F.c. pacificus), Steppe Merlin (F.c. pallidus), Central-Asian Merlin (F.c. lymani), differing in coloration, sizes and some features of their ecology. Shortage of data does not allow the exact border of distribution ranges of all subspecies to be determined, besides two – the steppe and Central-Asian subspecies.

Merlins, the short-distance migrants, arrive early on their breeding grounds. Across the whole of Northern Eurasia from the steppe zone in the south to the subzone of the middle taiga in the north, the spring migration of Merlins takes place at about one and the same dates and covers a two-month period from mid-March to mid-May, with a peak of passage in the second half of April. In the northern parts of range, in the sub-zone of northern taiga and in tundra, they arrive from the beginning of May to the beginning of June. Merlins of the steppe subspecies arrive at their breeding grounds in II–III decades of March. The birds of the Central-Asian subspecies lead a practically resi-dent mode of life, undertaking mainly only insignificant altitudinal movements.
The Merlin – bird of open or semi-open landscape, settles at the sites, where there is high number of small passerines and waders – its main prey. The falcon does not inhabit extensive closed woodlands, and therefore it is absent in dense taiga massifs of the forest zone. This falcon is most common for south-tundra and forest-tundra regions of the Extreme North, and also mountain tundra and mountain sparse-woodlands of Siberia. In the forest zone Merlins settle predominantly on peat and transition bogs, and also in river flood lands with considerable open spaces of meadows and marshes, while in southern taiga sometimes it breeds in mosaic forest-field landscape. The steppe subspecies occupies in the forest-steppe and steppe zone, penetrating the south of subtaiga forests on marsh massifs. In connection with wide distribution of Merlin the biotopes occupied by birds of different subspecies is sufficiently different.

The breeding habitats of Merlins of three northern subsecies – Eurasian (F.c. aesalon), East-Siberian (F.c. insignis) and Pacific (F.c. pacificus) are quite similar, — this is southern (shrubby) tundra, both plain and mountain, forest-tundra and mountain sparse woods, plots of taiga, alternating with peat and transitional bogs, and also river floodlands, dominated by shrubby thickets or small plots of forest, divided by floodland meadows, marshes on lowlands and agricultural habitats. In the south of taiga zone, in subtaiga and zone of the mixed forests, Merlins mainly occupy peat bogs and also aban-doned peat cuttings, very seldom the pine corpses in agricultural landscapes. The Central-Asian Merlins are real mountain birds, they inhabit the upper part of forest belt and when hunting and during passage they penetrate in the alpine and subalpine belts of mountains. They breed dominantly at altitudes from 1750 to 3000 m a.s.l.

The Merlin population in the Western Palearctic is estimated at 35000–55000 pairs, 75% of which breed in Russia. In Europe large populations inhabit Scandinavia (8000–18 500 пар), Iceland, where there is the special subspecies F.c. subaesalon (500–1000 pairs) and Great Britain (550–650 pairs). In Belarus there are 300–350 breeding pairs. In the European part of Russia there are from 20 to 30 thousand pairs of these falcons. In some regions of Extreme North, for example, in Lapland this is a common bird by number yielding only to the Rough-legged Buzzard (Buteo lagopus). Annual population variation of Merlins can be quite considerable, especially on the ground.

Character of Merlin breeding is different in different part of range. Breeding on the ground prevails in the regions, where tree vegetation is absent (tundra, forestless mountains) and there are no or few corvids (Putorana plateau, extensive massifs of peat bogs in Siberia and in the north of the European part of Russia). Dominating breeding on the ground was considered as ecological feature of the steppe subspecies. The modern data show that the Merlins of all subspecies in the presence of choice opportunity prefer to breed in trees in corvid constructions, dominantly crows or magpies, because on-ground nests quite often are predated by carnivorous mammals. Undoubtedly, the Hooded Crow has increased in the second half of the ХХth century and its occupation of considerable areas of the Extreme North, especially in the forest-tundra and southern tundra, enabled Merlins to breed in trees.

Duration of the reproductive cycle of the Merlins from beginning of egg-laying till dispersal of broods covers 2.5–3 months. Beginning of egg-laying in the northern parts of range happens in the last 5-days of May to the first 10-days of June. The Merlins of the Central-Asian subspecies in the mountains of the Central Asia begin to breed somewhat earlier. In the southern parts of range the first eggs in clutches appear during the last days of April to the beginning of May, but fresh clutches can be found during entire month of May.

The Merlin clutch size within limits of the range varies from 1 to 7 eggs, but the majority of clutches contains 3–5 eggs. The average clutch size in different parts of range varies from 3,5 to 4.5 eggs and is not distinct in different subspecies. The biggest portion of clutches consisted of 4 and 5 eggs are recorded in the Merlins inhabiting tun-dra, taiga and steppe zones.

Incubation duration in Vitebsk Region of Belarus averages 28 days (n = 15), based on data, received in the east of Bolshezemelskaya tundra – 31,9 ± 0,17 days (for 15 eggs with exactly known date of laying). In the steppe Merlin incubation duration from laying of the first egg till hatching of the first chick covers 30–32 days. All eggs in nests hatched over 2–5 days. Weight of just hatched chicks varies from 9,8 to 17,5 g.

The chicks begin to see at the age of 4 days, on wings pins of primaries appear; in 10-day chicks on entire body, besides head, growth of feathers goes on, that look like small brushlets; at the age of 18 days chicks already stand on legs, with intensive devel-opment of feathers; in 24-day old chicks the down is only found on some parts of the head, belly and rump. At this time they leave nest but are unable to fly. Males begin to fly, as a rule, at the age of 26 days, female – at the age of 27 days. The average brood size in different parts of range varies from 1,3 to 3,8 fledglings per pair.

Chick fledging depends on geographical location. In the south of range it happens approximately by 1 month earlier than in the north. In Merlins of the steppe subspecies young leave nests mainly at the end of June – beginning of July, in the Central-Asian subspecies – in the second half – end of July.

The Merlin is dominantly ornithophagous, lion’s portion of its food in all periods of life and in all geographical conditions consists of birds. Among the largest species of prey the Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus), Teal (Anas crecca), Willow Grouse (Lagopus lagopus) and Grey Partridges (Perdix perdix), Great Snipe (Gallinago media), Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus), Jay (Garrulus glandarius) and yet unable to fly young Curlews (Numenius arquata) were recorded, among the smallest – Warblers (Phylloscopus spp.). The base of the Merlin food consists of small birds mainly Passerines, but in some sites also Charadriiformes too. Outside the breeding season, on passage and in wintering grounds, Merlins feed dominantly on the most numerous and easily-caught birds, mainly Passerines. Besides birds Merlins catch small mammals – lemmings, voles, sometimes shrews. In some regions of the North in the years of peak of the lemming number these animals play sufficient role in the Merlin breeding. For example, in Lapland in the years of peak of number of the Norwegian Lemming (Lemmus lemmus) an increase of breeding density and Merlin clutch size was recorded. Just in such years in Merlin the clutches of 6 and even 7 eggs were found. Similar observations in the south of Yamal in the years of peak number of the Hoofed Lemming and high number of the Narrow-headed Vole (Microtus gregalis). In the Polar Ural in the Merlin food the Red Vole was recorded, in the forest-steppe of Kurgan Region – Wood Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus). In the steppe zone the Merlins sometimes catch the Field Voles (Microtus agrestis), Steppe Voles (Lagurus lagurus), Southern Birch Mice (Sicista subtilis).

The enemies of Merlin are more large species of the birds of prey, owls and corvids who on occasionally hunt these falcons or rob their nests. Terrestrial predators beginning by Stoat (Mustela erminea) and finishing by Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) rep-resent an undoubted threat for Merlins that breed on the ground.

A probable competitor of the Merlin is the Hobby (Falco subbuteo). Merlins are quite tolerant to other small falcons in their neighbourhood.

There is not serious necessity for organization of special conservation of this secretive little-visible falcon by the present time. Its number is regulated mainly by natural factors and it is possible to protect Merlin in the system of other nature-protected measures for example in the territory of Special Protected Territories. Propaganda of conservation of all species of birds of prey and educational work with population are necessary.

General characteristic of the species and field signs
Chapter I. Systematics, morphology, moult

General appearance
Anatomy and sizes
Chapter II. Distribution
Breeding range
Wintering grounds
Vagrant records
Chapter III. Migration
Migration of the Eurasian Merlin
Spring passage
Autumn passage
Migration of the East-Siberian Merlin
Migration of the Pacific Merlin
Migration of the Steppe Merlin
Chapter IV. Habitats
Chapter V. Numbers

Dynamics of range and numbers
Chapter VI. Breeding
Breeding sites
Height of nest locations
Nest sizes
Phenology of egg-laying period
Clutch size
Coloration, sizes and weight of eggs
Incubation period
Phenology of chick hatching period
Incubation success
Post-incubation period
Breeding success
Dates of chick fledging
Chapter VII. Daily activity and behaviour
Chapter VIII. Feeding
Chapter IX. Enemies, competitors, commensals, unfavourable factors
Chapter X. Practical importance and conservation

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