Conservation status Has increased in numbers in some parts of range, especially the northern plains, and has expanded into new nesting areas, where it often nests in towns and suburbs. Most North American populations seem to be either stable or increasing.
Family Falcons
Habitat Open conifer woodland, prairie groves; in migration, also foothills, marshes, open country. Generally breeds in semi-open terrain having trees for nest sites and open areas for hunting. Habitat varies from coniferous forest in north and on northwest coast to isolated deciduous groves and suburban yards on prairies. May winter in more open areas, such as grasslands, coastal marshes.
A rather small falcon, compact and fast-flying, the Merlin is a common breeder across the northern forests of North America and Eurasia. It feeds mostly on small birds, capturing them in mid-air in rapid pursuit. The Merlin is generally found in wild places, but since about 1960 it has become a common urban bird in several towns on the northern prairies; there it nests and remains to winter, relying on a steady supply of House Sparrows as prey.

Feeding Behavior

Does most hunting by watching from a perch, then flying out to capture prey in the air. Also hunts by flying low among trees or over ground, taking prey by surprise; seldom dives steeply from above to capture prey. Birds, insects, and bats are usually caught in mid-air.


4-5, sometimes 2-6. Whitish, lightly or heavily marked with reddish-brown. Incubation is mostly by female, 28-32 days; male brings food to female, then he incubates while she eats. Young: Female remains with young most of time, brooding them when they are small. Male brings food, female takes it from him near nest and then feeds it to young. Age of young at first flight about 29 days.


Female remains with young most of time, brooding them when they are small. Male brings food, female takes it from him near nest and then feeds it to young. Age of young at first flight about 29 days.


Mostly small birds. Often specializes on locally abundant species of birds (such as Horned Larks on the plains, House Sparrows in urban settings, small sandpipers on coast). Also feeds on large insects (especially dragonflies), rodents, bats, reptiles.


In courtship, male performs spectacular flight displays, with steep dives, strong twisting flight, glides, rolling from side to side, fluttering with shallow wingbeats. Male brings food and presents it to female. Nest site is usually in tree in old nest of hawk, crow, or magpie, 10-60' above ground. Sometimes in large tree cavity, on cliff ledge, or on ground. Usually little or no material added to existing nest.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

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Most Merlins migrate, some northern birds reaching South America. Those of Pacific Northwest (race suckleyi) are mostly permanent residents. Some prairie birds (race richardsonii) have become permanent residents in cities on northern plains during recent decades, while others there still migrate.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon

See a fully interactive migration map for this species on the Bird Migration Explorer.

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Songs and Calls

High, loud cackle, also klee-klee-klee like an American Kestrel, but usually silent.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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How Climate Change Will Reshape the Range of the Merlin

Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect this bird’s range in the future.

Zoom in to see how this species’s current range will shift, expand, and contract under increased global temperatures.

Climate Threats Near You

Climate threats facing the Merlin

Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.