Max- Max is a small species of falcon called a merlin (Falco columbarius columbarius). Merlins are one of a very few raptor species which are sexually color dimorphic- you can tell females and males apart by their color! We know Max is a male because of the slate blue-gray on his wings that male merlins are known for. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Max has lived at the ABEF since 2012. His coloration indicates that he is a taiga subspecies of merlin. When he’s not educating guests, Max enjoys ripping apart mice, flapping his wings and sitting high on his “falcon walk”. His favorite foods include quail and mice- you can help us provide these for him by sponsoring Max.
Max’s sponsors are: Caroline Greenwood, the St Laurent family, Robert Turnbull, and Ed Lynds
Learn more about merlins-
Identification: Merlins (Falco columbarius) are a small falcon found across the globe. Males are only slightly larger than the American kestrel and females are noticeably larger. Merlins have shorter, more squared tails than other falcons and relatively shorter, more broad wings. There are three subspecies of merlin across North America, two of which are found in Alaska, the taiga merlin (F.c. columbarius) and the black merlin (F.c. suckleyi). Merlins are one of a handful of species of raptors who have different plumage between sexes. The taiga male merlin is slate blue-gray above with reddish tan streakings beneath and a pale throat. Females and juveniles are dark brown on top with dark brown heavy streaking underneath. Black merlins are much more dark than the taiga subspecies. Adult males are blueish on top with dark gray-black flight feathers and a dark chest and wingpits mottled with cream colored spots. Like the males, adult females and juveniles have a dark head, however they are almost uniformly black on top with a dark abdomen, chest and wingpits that are mottled with a dark cream color. Both sexes of merlins have characteristic pale bands across their tail, though it is hardly noticeable in the black merlin. The taiga merlin has a distinct white tip on the tail.
Hunting & diet: The majority of a merlin’s diet are small birds however, the exact type of bird varies regionally . In Alaska the American tree sparrow (Spizella arborea), dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis), lapland longspur (Calcarius lapponicus), fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca) and the white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) are the most common prey items for merlins. Migrating and wintering populations of merlins are known to eat large quantities of insects and take small seabirds. Male merlins have been recorded mimicking songbird flight during their migration to catch songbirds more successfully. Most merlins hunt on the wing, although it’s not uncommon for them to hunt from a perched position. They are known to actively fly below tree-tops so they are hidden and can surprise their prey. Merlins have also been recorded hunting cooperatively with each other and juvenile sharp-shinned hawks (Accipiter striatus).
Size: Males range between 9-11 inches in height, have a wingspan from 21-23 inches and weigh between 4.5-6.6 ounces. Females are between 11-12 inches in height with a wingspan ranging from 24-27 inches and weighing between 6.4-8.3 ounces.
Habitat: In Alaska, the taiga merlin lives as far north as the Arctic Circle during breeding season. Taiga merlins are generally found in interior Alaska while the black merlin occupies South Central and Southeast Alaska. Taiga merlins utilize woodlots, forest edges, rivers and lakes and swampy areas to search for prey. Taiga merlin populations are migratory and have been tracked traveling as far south as Peru in the winter. In the spring and summer months, black merlins will occupy sub-alpine habitat where forest openings include bogs, muskegs, lakes and creeks. They will also occupy forest openings at sea level. Black merlins have not been reported migrating south for winter, rather they to move to the ocean and tidal flats where there is a higher prey availability.
Nesting and breeding: Pair formation occurs in Alaska between the end of April and the middle of May. Merlins bond with a variety of displays which include high circling and soaring, high speed dives, food begging, food transfers, and power flying/diving. Either the pair, or just the male will choose the nesting site. Merlins do not build their own nests, but instead will use the nests of black-billed magpies (Pica pica) or the northwestern crow (Corvus caurinus). While uncommon, if they do not use old nests, they will make a scrape in the cavity of a rocky crevice or on the ground. Generally, the higher the nest, the higher the survival rate for the chicks. Merlins rarely use the same nest each year, and it is common for them to have a new mate yearly. The female lays an average of three eggs, but may replace an old egg if one is compromised early enough in the season. The eggs are laid about two days apart and have about a 30 day incubation period. The male is considered to be an aggressive nest defender against corvids and other potential threats. Yearling males may be “nest helpers” and help provide food for the nest as well as additional protection. The nestlings leave the nest after about thirty days from hatching, but are still fed by their parents for up to an additional month.
Other facts: Although they are a species of falcon, merlins are known colloquially as “pigeon hawks” because their flight closely resembles that of a pigeon. Their species name (columbarius) refers to the family name (Columbidae) of the pigeon/dove family. In medieval times, merlins were used in the sport of falconry as a status of power for women.
Most common problems: Poisoning by organochlorines has long been a problem for merlin populations across the globe. Although levels of DDT & DDE have declined in merlins since the 1960s, biologists are now finding abnormally high mercury levels. In North America, deforestation and degradation of habitat is the merlin’s largest concern. In urban areas, collision with vehicles is common.
By sponsoring Max, you are helping to provide him with food, as well as any aviary maintenance or cleaning supplies for one year. Thank you for your support!