One of the most enjoyable and gratifying aspects of being a naturalist is the opportunity I have to help different people understand the world a little better. On March 9 I received an email from Mary asking for help identifying a duck that her son had seen. She attached a photo of the mystery bird and as soon as I saw it, I understood her confusion.
The photo was of a male hooded merganser — a striking bird that is not all that uncommon, but still seen so irregularly as to be largely unknown by most non-birders.
The male hooded merganser is arguably among the most beautiful of our birds. Like the northern pintail, the hooded merganser has a costume that is almost monochromatic, but ducks have a flair for beauty and elegance.
A combination of jet black and titanium white is all you see from a distance, but once your binoculars lock onto these birds and you start to notice the caramel-brown feathers you will find it difficult to suppress an “oooo” or and “ahhh.” These birds are simply gorgeous.
Suited to pond life
The smallest of the mergansers, the hooded merganser is the best adapted to living in ponds. Like the other species, hooded mergansers eat fish. As a result, these ducks have distinctly un-ducky bills. Rather than being flat and broad, like that of a mallard, the bill of the hooded merganser is long, slender and armed with pointy little ridges that resemble teeth (for gripping slippery little fish).
Unlike the common merganser (which you will to see on larger lakes, rivers, and streams in our area) and the red-breasted merganser (which you are more likely to see in the salt marshes of coastal areas), the hooded merganser will eat many other types of aquatic creatures in addition to fish. Crayfish, insects, frogs, tadpoles, snails, and even the seeds and stems of aquatic plants are all on the menu.
This is because hooded mergansers intentionally seek out secluded woodland ponds for breeding.
Up a tree
What is most interesting, and even a little surprising, is the fact that they nest up in trees. Wood ducks are well-known tree nesters, but they are by no means the only species that uses this strategy. Buffleheads, goldeneyes, common mergansers and hooded mergansers all nest in tree cavities.
This means that pairs of hooded mergansers will spend quite a bit of time investigating trees while they attempt to select a suitable pond. The trees have to be relatively large and close to the water, and of sufficient age to have acquired a hole of acceptable dimensions. I would think that such trees are rather difficult to find, which means that they are also very valuable to the ducks.
Once a suitable tree next to a suitable pond is located, the fighting will start. Male hooded mergansers can raise the feathers on their heads in exquisite fan-shaped crests and they do this as part of aggressive displays. I actually got to see a male hoody (as they are sometimes called) chasing a female and he did this with his hood up. He was clearly annoyed.
With luck, a female will lay 10 to 12 eggs in a nest tree and later a dozen adorable little ducklings will find their courage and bail out of their nest. Ducklings are so tiny and fluffy that they just bounce when they hit the leafy forest floor. Then it’s off to the pond to learn about how to be a merganser.
Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.