Meet the Fast Flying Merlin

Despite a name to the contrary, there’s nothing magical or mysterious about merlin falcons.

Photo via Shutterstock

The Merlin falcon has a name that sounds a bit magical, but its name really comes from an old French word for the bird, esmerillon.


Merlin falcons are smaller than most falcons. They are bigger than a robin, but smaller than a crow. They are known for their flying and hunting abilities.


These birds are common across the eastern half of the United States, but we see them most often in the spring and fall when they are migrating.


Fun facts

  • Merlins mostly eat other birds, and they catch their prey in the air. They also eat rodents, bats, reptiles and large insects.

  • Three merlin falcon species live in the United States: the black merlin, prairie merlin and taiga merlin. Both the prairie and taiga merlins live in Illinois.

  • These falcons don’t make their own nests. Instead, they take over the nests of other birds.

  • During medieval times, merlins were known as lady hawks, and they were used to hunt a smaller bird, called a skylark.

  • Merlins used to be called pigeon hawks because they look like pigeons when they fly. They also look like another bird we see in our area, the American kestrel.

  • The female merlins are bigger than the males, which is true of all raptors such as eagles, hawks and owls.