The merlin (6)

Scotland's Birds of Prey, Part 6: the merlin

Although Scotland is perhaps most famous - especially amongst falconers - for its peregrine falcon, it may surprise you to know that Scotland is home to more than 20 varieties of bird of prey. In this series, we're introducing you to some of the birds of prey that you can see in the wild in Scotland.

So far in this series, we've covered:

  1. Buzzard
  2. Kestrel
  3. Sparrowhawk
  4. Tawny Owl
  5. Red-tailed kite
  6. Merlin
  7. White-tailed eagle

Now, in part 6, we're going to look at the merlin, the UK's smallest falcon.

The Merlin

Only about the size of a blackbird, and weighing around 200g (7oz), this feisty, fast falcon packs a punch much bigger than its size would suggest. It is a lion-hearted little bird, unafraid to defend its territory from other, much larger raptors. Especially territorial when rearing its chicks, merlins have even been known to go on the offensive against the huge golden eagle, which is testament to their agility and their aggressive spirit!

Merlins painted by Alastair Proud

The male merlin, known as the Jack, has blue-grey upper feathers and rusty-brown feathers on his chest, while females have brown outer feathers and a lighter, cream-coloured chest.

The merlin has been used in falconry for centuries and it was the preferred bird of keen falconer Mary, Queen of Scots, who reportedly flew merlins at larks in the 16th Centrury, even during her imprisonment. 

Hunting technique

The merlin's main quarry is small birds such as meadow pippets and chaffinches. It hunts mostly 'on the wing', meaning it catches its prey in flight, tail-chasing and jinking, its pointed wings and longer tail enabling it to build speed and change direction with ease.  

Merlin numbers

The merlin is rated as being  of 'least concern' in conservation terms, because its numbers recovered well after pesticides were banned in the 1970s and 1980s. However, loss of habit and contamination remain a threat to this falcon. When it was last surveryed nationally, around 10 years ago, the merlin population appeared stable with around 800 pairs in Scotland, but a new study is overdue. 

When and where and how to see merlins in Scotland:

  • All year round, but in summer they're likely to be in upland areas and in winter, the lowlands
  • In Scotland's coastal areas and open countryside and heathery moorlands
  • Merlins breed in May and June. This is when they will be are at their most vocal, often revealing themselves as they rise up to chase away other raptors, so listen for their excited 'kek-kek-kek'!

Have you seen (or even heard) a merlin in Scotland? It's probably Steve's favourite bird of prey - do you have a favourite? Or a story to tell about a bird of prey? Please leave a comment in the space below - we'd love to hear from you about this. 

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  2. Martin, Brian P.: Birds of Prey of the British Isles (1993) pp111-117


  1. Painting by Alastair Proud, adapted from page 114 of Brian P. Martin's book, listed above
  2. Page: Attribution: None 
  3. Page: Attribution: Tom Grey

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