Hooded Merganser (What Time is it in Nature)
It’s winter, which means that the variety of things you might see on a nature walk is somewhat diminished, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still interesting things to see outside! At Prairie Ridge, we tend to see more ducks in the winter than in the summer, so now is a great time to see some of our winter aquatic visitors. One of the showiest ducks we see is the Hooded Merganser.
As you can see from the photo, male and female Mergansers look quite different. This species, as in many birds, is sexually dimorphic, which means that the males and the females are easily identified by their appearance. Both sexes are relatively small for ducks with long, rounded tails and sit low in the water. They also have large collapsible crests on their heads. Male Mergansers are black on top, white on the bottom, and have reddish-brown sides with a black and white crest. The females are mostly grey with some brown and have reddish-brown crests.
Hooded Mergansers are widespread ducks in North America, spending time in most areas of the country except the Great Plains. They are relatively common ducks on small ponds and rivers and may be spotted in marshes and saltwater bays. They feed primarily on fish, insects, crustaceans, amphibians, and plants they capture underwater. Hooded Mergansers locate prey by sight, using special clear eyelids to protect their eyes underwater when they dive. Their long, narrow beaks have a serrated edge that allows them to grasp slippery foods easily.
Hooded Mergansers are cavity nesting birds, so they breed in forested wetlands throughout their range. Males court females by puffing up their crests, making a croaking call, and occasionally shaking or throwing their heads back. You’ll often see a small group of males around one or more females, the males competing for mates. Females do most of their nesting alone. They find suitable nest cavities on their own and prepare it for eggs, but they also get no help from their mates during incubation as the males abandon their mates once they have completed their egg laying. Merganser chicks hatch in about a month and jump from their nest to the ground when they are only one day old. Their mother will lead them to the water where they will begin to hunt for themselves.
Like many other bird species, Hooded Merganser populations decreased hugely in the early twentieth century due to overhunting and the demand for feathers. Since then, their population has rebounded and is now stable.
The Hooded Mergansers are not on the Prairie Ridge pond everyday, but they are frequent morning visitors. Next time you make plans to visit, consider coming right when we open at 9AM and heading straight to the pond. You’re likely to see 10-15 of these gorgeous ducks swimming about!
What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive.