Hooded Merganser, Lophodytes cucullatus
By Tom Dennis
The Hooded Merganser is the smallest of three species of merganser found in North American and all three can be seen locally during the winter months. This small diving duck is found here throughout the year. During warm weather, they prefer quiet waters, such as wooded ponds, slow-moving rivers, and streams, where forage and raise their young. During the winter they are more commonly found on lake bays and larger rivers away from rough water. Let’s take a closer look at this beautiful duck who just happens to be the only merganser whose native habitat is exclusive to North America; another creature that bird watchers travel from around the world to see in the Blue Water Area.
Hooded Mergansers are beautiful ducks with a distinctive head crest that both sexes can raise or lower. They have the typical merganser saw-tooth bill that is dark gray in males with the female bill brown above and yellows on the lower mandible. Breeding females have a brown body, dark gray wings with the secondaries showing white stripes above and mostly white below, extending to the primaries (near the wingtips). Their crest is a soft reddish-brown and the eye is dark yellow to nearly red. Males are strikingly colored with white underparts, chestnut flanks, black upperparts and a white breast with two black bars. On the male, the large crest is white, bordered all around in black and when lowered it shows as a white stripe behind the eye. Males have yellow to golden-yellow eyes and immature males are distinguished by eye and bill color. Their vocalizations range from deep frog-like croaking to higher pitch “clucking”. During the flight, they make a cricket-like wing trill sound.
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Hooded Mergansers are well-designed for diving and are extremely agile swimmers that feed on small fish, aquatic insects, and crustaceans. With legs positioned far back on the body to facilitate underwater movement, they are awkward on land and seldom seen out of the water or air. They find their underwater prey by sight with built-in retractable goggles. This third eyelid, the nictating membrane, is clear and acts to protect the eye while swimming and diving. Hooded Mergansers are cavity nesters and their numbers have suffered, especially where mature trees are removed from wetland areas. They are also quite susceptible to poisoning by eating insects and fish in contaminated or polluted water. This is another important reason to eliminate pesticide use in areas where water runoff or direct contamination is possible.
At the sixth annual Winter Bird Blast is Saturday, February 8th you can come and learn more about the unique waterfowl of the Blue Water area. It starts at 9 AM at the Don Dodge Auditorium in the St. Clair County Building and includes a field trip to view many of our local gulls, ducks, and more. Visit the Blue Water Audubon Society Facebook page for details about this free, family-friendly event. You are also welcome to attend Blue Water Audubon meetings held at The Point, 5085 Lakeshore Rd, in Fort Gratiot. Our next meeting will be held on Monday, February 3, starting at 6:45 PM.
Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, creation scientist, gardener, and naturalist.