- Last Updated: May 27, 2014
Hooded Merganser by Joe Halton
Mergansers have “teeth” to grab onto slippery fish. Actually, the bill of a merganser has tiny serrations much like their prehistoric ancestors, Archaeopteryx. The mainstay in the Hooded Merganser diet is forage fish found in the shallow bays, estuaries and shorelines of Skagit County. Other habitats to find Hooded Mergansers include local ponds and lakes. These birds dive for their prey using “bird googles” to see. The nictating membrane or third eyelid is clear and protects the eye when diving.
What a wonderful “spot” when you focus your binoculars on the “pompadour” head crest of the male. The striking white patch behind the yellow eye is surrounded by black feathers. The male has a white breast with two black bars or spurs on each side. The flanks are reddish-brown. In flight, the male sports white shoulder patches on dark wings. The wings of both the male and female make an audible trill on “take-off.” Hooded Mergansers are a sexually dimorphic species, so the female is mostly brown with a white breast. She also has a retractable reddish-brown head crest.
The monogamous pair will nest in natural cavities of trees near water. The height of the nest can be 10 to 20 feet above ground. They also nest in boxes designed for Wood Ducks and abandoned woodpecker cavities of Northern Flickers and Pileated Woodpeckers. The nest is down-lined over wood chips. The female lays six to eighteen white eggs.
At this point the male “goes fishing” and abandons the female to lay and incubate the eggs. She can lose between 8 to 16 percent of her body weight over the 32 day incubation time. Female Hooded Mergansers have been known to lay eggs in each other’s nests and the nests of Wood Ducks and Golden-eye females. These are called “dump” nests and the birds share incubation. The hatchlings are precocial and will leave the nest within 24 hours, fully capable of diving and foraging on their own.
The Hooded Merganser female will protect her brood by performing a distraction display similar to a Killdeer. She is a very fast diver and flyer. However like all mergansers, they are awkward on land because their legs are set far back on their bodies.
Look for Hooded Mergansers year round in Skagit County. During winter, they can be spotted with Bufflehead and Golden-eye.
References available upon request.