Adult male: head has gray crown, rufous nape with black spot on either side, dark moustaches around white cheeks. Back is bright rufous with black barring on lower back. The tail is patterned with highly variable amounts of black, white, or gray bands. Wings are blue-gray with dark primaries. Underparts are white, washed with cinnamon. Adult female: head similar pattern to male, but more brown on crown. Back, wings, and tail are reddish brown with dark barring; subterminal tailband much wider than other bands. Underparts are buffy-white with reddish streaks. Juvenile male: head similar to adult, but less gray and with dark streaks on crown. Back is completely streaked, heavy streaks on breast. Juvenile female: very similar to adult female. Flight: light, bouncy flight is usually not direct and purposeful—often with “twitches” or hesitation. Light underwings and generally light body coloration. Males show a row of white dots (“string of pearls”) on the trailing edges of the underwings. Fans tail when hovering.
Geographic Variation Edit
Two subspecies occur in North America; widespread nominate sparveriusis the typical migratory form. Subspecies paulus, from South Carolina to Florida, is smaller, the male with less barring on the back and fewer spots on its undersides, essentially nonmigratory.
Similar Species Edit
Merlin appears darker in flight due to dark underwings, shorter tail. When perched, looks darker, more heavy-bodied, lacks the 2 moustaches. Peregrine falcon is larger, has wider wings, shorter tail, single heavy moustache. Eurasian kestrel is slightly larger, has 1 moustache, wedge-shaped tail; males have blue-gray tail and reddish wings.
Status and Distribution Edit
Common in open areas, it ranges throughout North America, including much of Canada and into Alaska. Breeding: a cavity nester, it uses dead trees, cliffs, occasionally a dirt bank, and even a hollow giant cactus in the Southwest. It will also use man-made nestboxes placed high on trees and telephone poles. Up to 5 or 6 young per brood, depending on food availability. Migration: northern breeders follow traditional fall migration routes to wintering ranges in the southern United States and northern Mexico. Eastern populations use the coastlines more than the inland corridors, and are not reluctant to cross water. Spring migrants are only concentrated along the Great Lakes watch-sites. Winter: the majority of birds winter in the southern United States, often spaced out on every other telephone pole in agricultural areas. A small percentage winter in snow-covered states, the numbers depending on food sources.
Overall, numbers are stable. However, increases in the central United States are being offset by declines in the Northeast and the West Coast (California and Oregon). Eastern populations are thought to be affected by loss of open habitat due to 2 factors; human development and agricultural abandonment leading to reforestation, with a subsequent increase in Cooper’s hawk predation.