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Montana Field Guides

Merlin - Falco columbarius

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Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S4

Agency Status
USFWS:
USFS:
BLM:
FWP Conservation Tier: 2
PIF:


 

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General Description
Males are blue-gray to dark blue above and pale rufous to buff-colored below, with dark streaking or barring. Females are brown above and cream to rufous below with darker streaking. The tail is barred dark with gray to white and exhibits a dark sub-terminal band. The eye is dark brown, and feet are yellow. Juveniles of both sexes resemble females, but are sometimes darker. Merlins are from 10 to 12 inches in length, and have wingspans of 19 to 24 inches. Females are slightly larger than males. A small falcon with pointed wings, a strongly barred tail, a hooked bill, and heavy streaking below; upperparts are gray-blue in males, dark brown in females; overall, plumage is much darker in the Pacific Northwest than in central Canada and the Midwest; average length 31 cm, wingspan 64 cm.

Diagnostic Characteristics
Merlins are significantly smaller than Gyrfalcons, Prairie Falcons, and Peregrine Falcons. Differs from American Kestrel, Prairie Falcon, and Peregrine Falcon in lacking a strong facial pattern. Both sexes are more uniform in color, lacking russet back and tail, than the brightly colored American Kestrel. Only about half as big as a Gyrfalcon (average length 31 cm vs. 51 to 64 cm). Immature Merlins resemble immature Sharp-shinned Hawks, but have pointed wings and dark eyes, instead of the short, rounded wings and yellow eyes of the Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Species Range
Montana Range

Click the legend blocks above to view individual ranges.

Western Hemisphere Range

 


Summary of Observations Submitted for Montana
Number of Observations: 1489

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density

Recency

Breeding
(direct evidence "B")


Breeding
(indirect evidence "b")


No evidence of Breeding
(transient "t")


Overwintering
(regular observations "W")


Overwintering
(at least one obs. "w")



 

(Records associated with a range of dates are excluded from time charts)



Migration
Subspecies bendirei and richardsonii probably migrate thru MT. In Bozeman, birds appear October 1 to November 15, disappear March 1 to 15 (Skaar 1969).

Habitat
Breeding pairs in eastern Montana usually use sparse conifer stands adjacent to prairie habitats, but sometimes use shelterbelts and river bottom forests. In western Montana, they use open stands of conifers and river bottom forests. Merlins sometimes nest in urban areas. In the Bozeman area, found in the Gallatin Valley, not far from wooded areas (Skaar 1969).

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (high, medium, or low) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2001, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species’ range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of “observations versus availability of habitat”.
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were associated as using an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  High, medium, and low habitat quality was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species in the literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignments of habitat quality.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact Bryce Maxell at bmaxell@mt.gov or (406) 444-3655.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: http://mtnhp.org/requests/default.asp) or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species’ known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2001.  The wild mammals of Montana.  Special Publication No. 12.  Lawrence, KS: The American Society of Mammalogists.  278 p.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana’s amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
Merlins primarily eat small birds. In eastern Montana, common prey includes grassland birds such as Horned Larks, Vesper Sparrows, and Lark Buntings. In western Montana, prey includes various sparrows, finches and waxwings. Young Merlins often take larger insects such as grasshoppers and moths.

Ecology
The 1944 raptor survey of MT showed this species to be the least abundant raptor in the state (Davis 1961). Said to be formerly uncommon, now rare in the Fortine area.

Reproductive Characteristics
Male Merlins arrive at nesting areas in late March and early April, and females arrive slightly later. They use nests previously constructed by Black-billed Magpies or American Crows; Merlins, like other falcons, do not build their own nests. Used old corvid nests in MT. Clutches of three to five eggs are laid from mid April to early June, and are incubated for about 30 days. The young fly when about 40 days old, but they remain near their nests. Live to be about eight years old. Nesting dates probably similar to those of Alberta and Saskatchewan, where egg records are from May 7 to June 6 (Johnsgard 1986).

References
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View WorldCat Record   View Online Publication
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    • [PRESI] Powder River Eagle Studies Incorporated. 1998b. Spring Creek Mine 1997 wildlife monitoring studies. Powder River Eagle Studies Incorporated. Gillete, WY.
    • Allen, G. T. 1979. An assessment of potential conflicts between nesting raptors and human activities in the Long Pines area of southeastern Montana with special emphasis on uranium development. M.S. thesis, Washington State University, Pullman. 109 pp.
    • American Ornithologists' Union. 1998. Check-list of North American birds. 7th edition. American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C. 829 pp.
    • Becker and Sieg. 1985. Raptor Res. 19:52-55.
    • Becker, D. M. 1984. Reproductive ecology and habitat utilization of Richardson's merlins in southeastern Montana. MS Thesis, Univ. of Montana, Missoula. 62 pp.
    • Becker, D. M. 1985. Food habits of Richardson's Merlins in southeastern Montana. Wilson Bull. 97:226-230.
    • Becker, D. M., and C. H. Sieg. 1987. Home range and habitat utilization of breeding male merlins, Falco columbarius, in southeastern Montana. Can. Field-Nat. 101:398-403.
    • Becker, Dale M., 1980, A Survey of raptors on national forest land in Carter County, Montana. Final Progress Report: 1977-1979.
    • Clark, T. W., H.A. Harvey, R.D. Dorn, D.L. Genter, and C. Groves (eds). 1989. Rare, sensitive, and threatened species of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, Montana Natural Heritage Program, The Nature Conservancy, and Mountain West Environmental Services. 153 p.
    • Decker Coal Co., 1981, Wildlife survey. July 7, 1981. In North Decker 5-Year Permit Application. Vol. III. Rule 26.4.304(12-14).
    • Dobkin, D. S. 1992. Neotropical migrant landbirds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. U.S.D.A. For. Serv. N. Region Publ. R1-93-34. Missoula, Mont.
    • Econ, Inc. (Ecological Consulting Service), Helena, MT., 1977, 1977 wildlife and wildlife habitat monitoring study, Peabody Coal Company Big Sky Mine. Proj. 161-85-A. November 30, 1977.
    • ECON, Inc. (Ecological Consulting Service), Helena, MT., 1977, Colstrip 10 x 20 Area wildlife and wildlife habitat annual monitoring report, 1977. Proj. 164-85-A. December 31, 1977.
    • ECON, Inc. (Ecological Consulting Service), Helena, MT., 1979, Annual wildllife report of the Colstrip Area for 1978. Proj. 195-85-A. April 6, 1979.
    • Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Schuster Inc. New York. 785 pp.
    • Farmer, Patrick J., and Thomas W. Butts, Western Technology & Eng., Inc., Helena, MT., 1994, McDonald Project Terrestrial Wildlife Study, November 1989 - November 1993. April 1994. In McDonald Gold Project: Wildlife & Fisheries. [#18]. Seven-up Pete Joint Venture, Lincoln, MT. Unpub. No date.
    • Fjell, Alan K., and Brian R. Mahan, compilers., 1984, Peabody Coal Company Big Sky Mine, Rosebud County, MT. Wildlife monitoring report: 1983 field season. February 1984.
    • Fjell, Alan K., and Brian R. Mahan., 1983, Peabody Coal Company Big Sky Mine, Rosebud County, MT. Wildlife monitoring report: 1982 field season. May 1983.
    • Fjell, Alan K., and Brian R. Mahan., 1987, Big Sky Mine, Rosebud County, MT. Wildlife monitoring report: 1986 field season. April 1987.
    • Gorman, J. D., 1984, Interagency Rocky Mountain Front Wildlife Monitoring/Evaluation Program.
    • Hendricks, P., and K. H. Dueholm. 1995. Cliff-nesting raptor survey of the Sioux District, Custer National Forest: 1994. Unpubl. report to U.S.D.A. For. Serv., Custer N.F., Billings. 20 pp.
    • Johnsgard, P. A. 1992. Birds of the Rocky Mountains with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. xi + 504 pp.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1990. Hawks, eagles, and falcons of North America. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. 403 pp.
    • Land & Water Consulting, Inc., Missoula, MT., 2002, Montana Dept. of Transportation Wetland Mitigation Monitoring Report, Year 2002: Musgrave Lake, Zurich, Montana. Proj. No. 130091.019. May 2003. In 2002 Wetland Mitigation Monitoring Reports, Vol. II.
    • Lenard, S., J. Carlson, J. Ellis, C. Jones, and C. Tilly. 2003. P. D. Skaar's Montana Bird Distribution, 6th Edition. Montana Audubon: Helena, MT, 144 pp.
    • Lockhart, J. Michael, 1976, Effects of coal extraction and related development on wildlife populations. Annual progress report; Calendar year 1976. In Decker Coal Company West Pit Permit. Vol. 3. 26.4.304(10-11), 305, 306, and 307. Updated Rules Rewrite, July 1, 1991. Appendix F.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • Montana Dept. of State Lands. U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement., 1988, Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Peabody Coal Company's Big Sky Area B Mine, Rosebud County, Montana; July 1988.
    • Sieg, C.H., and D.M. Becker. 1990. Nest-site habitat selected by merlins in southeastern Montana. Condor 92:688-694.
    • Sodhi, N. S., L. W. Oliphant, P. C. James, and I. G. Warkentin. 1993. Merlin (Falco columbarius). In The Birds of North America, No. 44 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.
    • Thompson, Richard W., Western Resource Dev. Corp., Boulder, CO., 1996, Wildlife baseline report for the Montana [Montanore] Project, Lincoln and Sanders counties, Montana. In Application for a Hard Rock Operating Permit and Proposed Plan of Operation, Montanore Project, Lincoln and Sanders Counties, Montana. Vol. 5. Stroiazzo, John. Noranda Minerals Corp., Libby, MT. Revised September 1996.
    • Trimble, S. A. 1974. Habitat management series for unique or endangered species, Report No. 15, Merlin, FALCO COLUMBARIUS. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Dept. of Int., Technical Note, T-N-271, Denver. 41 pp.
    • TVX Mineral Hill Mine, Amerikanuak, Inc., Gardiner, MT., 2002, Yearly summary of wildlife observation reports. 1990-2002 Letter reports.
    • U.S. Forest Service. 1991. Forest and rangeland birds of the United States: Natural history and habitat use. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Agricultural Handbook 688. 625 pages.
    • Waage, Bruce C., 1995, Western Energy Company Rosebud Mine, Colstrip, Montana:1994 Annual Wildlife Monitoring Report; December 1, 1993 - November 30, 1994. February 27, 1995.
    • Waage, Bruce C., 1996, Western Energy Company Rosebud Mine, Colstrip, Montana: 1995 Annual Wildlife Monitoring Report; December 1, 1994 - November 30, 1995. February 28, 1996.
    • Waage, Bruce C., 1999, Western Energy Company Rosebud Mine, Colstrip, Montana: 1998 Annual Wildlife Monitoring Report; December 1, 1997 - November 30, 1998 Survey Period. February 24, 1999.
    • Waage, Bruce C., compiler., 1984, Western Energy Company Rosebud Mine, Rosebud County, Montana: Annual Wildlife Monitoring Report, 1983 Field Season. June 1984.
    • Waage, Bruce C., compiler., 1985, Western Energy Company Rosebud Mine, Rosebud County, Montana: Annual Wildlife Monitoring Report, 1984 Field Season. October 1985.
    • Waage, Bruce C., compiler., 1986, Western Energy Company Rosebud Mine, Rosebud County, Montana: Annual Wildlife Monitoring Report, 1985 Field Season. December 1986.
    • Warkentin, I. G., N. S. Sodhi, R. H. M. Espie, Alan F. Poole, L. W. Oliphant and P. C. James. 2005. Merlin (Falco columbarius). Species Account Number 044. The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved 3/25/2008 from The Birds of North America Online database
    • Western Energy Co., Colstrip, MT. Unpub., 1983, Western Energy Company's Application for Amendment to Surface Mining Permit NO. 8003, Area B: sections 7, 8, 17,18 T1N R41E, sections 12, 13 T1N R40E, Mining Expansion. March 1983.
    • Western Energy Co., Colstrip, MT., 1982, Western Energy Company Rosebud Mine, Colstrip, Montana: Annual Wildlife Report, 1982.
    • Western Technology and Eng., Inc., 1991, Wildlife resources of the Little Rocky Mountains Environmental Study Area. March 1991. In Application for Amendment to Operating Permit No. 00096, Zortman Mining, Inc., Phillips County, Montana. Vol. 3. Jan. 3, 1995.
    • Western Technology and Engineering, Inc. (WESTECH). 1994. Wildlife Monitoring Absaloka Mine Area Annual Report, 1993. Montana SMP 85005. OSMP Montana 0007C. Mar. 12, 1994.
    • Western Technology and Engineering, Inc. (WESTECH)., 1999, Wildlife Monitoring Absaloka Mine Area Annual Report, 1998. SMP 85005. OSMP Montana 0007E. April 1999.
    • Westmoreland Resources, Inc., Hardin, MT., 1981, 1981 Wildlife Report. April 1982.
    • Westmoreland Resources, Inc., Hardin, MT., 1983, 1980 Wildlife Monitoring Report. 12/21/79-12/20-80.
    • Westmoreland Resources, Inc., Hardin, MT., 1983, 1983 Wildlife Monitoring.
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Citation for data on this website:
Merlin — Falco columbarius.  Montana Field Guide.  Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  Retrieved on November 25, 2014, from http://FieldGuide.mt.gov/speciesDetail.aspx?elcode=ABNKD06030
 
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