BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Hooded mergansers are birds worth noticing and appreciating
Small in size and common nearly everywhere, the hooded merganser, or “hoodies” as some affectionately call them, are interesting behaving and looking waterfowl to be sure.
Years ago, I installed almost two dozen wood duck houses around Assawa Lake, which is adjacent to my property.
Many of those boxes have deteriorated beyond repair, but several are still in decent shape and available for occupancy each spring.
I try and monitor the boxes to see what species of wildlife has taken up residency, be they gray squirrel, flying squirrel, or what have you.
The hope, of course, is that the structures will house wood ducks or some other cavity-nesting duck, such as hooded mergansers or, rarely, buffleheads.
Indeed, one of the more accessible wood duck boxes that I put up many years ago on an oak tree along a wooded trail next to a small wetland in my backyard was occupied by a hen hooded merganser this spring. A skittish little duck, hooded mergansers will use artificial nest boxes as readily as do wood ducks.
Though hooded mergansers are a duck in every way, shape and form, there are differences. Unlike most of our typical ducks, the bill of hooded mergansers isn’t shaped like that of other ducks, although from the distance one could hardly distinguish this seemingly minor irregularity.
The slender, strong, serrated bill of a hooded merganser is perfect for capturing and securing fish that it often catches and eats. Other items on the menu include crayfish, aquatic insects, crustaceans and mollusks, and more.
The male of the species is spectacular looking in the springtime, especially when he erects his impressive crest or “hood” as it’s called, to impress the lady birds.
Still, too, what sets this species apart from so many other ducks is their preferred nesting location. Instead of the ground where most ducks choose to nest, this duck selects cavities in trees as well as “wood duck houses” to nest comfortably inside of.
Of all the birds I’ve written about over the years, I’ve never written exclusively about this common duck: the hooded merganser.
Perhaps overlooked by many a birder and hunter, especially the latter, the hooded merganser is a bird worth noticing and appreciating. Small in size and common nearly everywhere, the hooded merganser, or “hoodies” as some affectionately call them, are interesting behaving and looking waterfowl to be sure.
Arguably one of North America’s most striking birds, hooded mergansers are both beautiful and fascinating. While both males and females sport collapsible crests that can be raised and lowered at will, it’s the males that catch the eye — not just that of the hens they’re vying for.
About the appearance of the hooded merganser, John J. Audubon once wrote: “Excepting the Smew or White Nun [which is the smaller Eurasian species of merganser], the Hooded Merganser is the handsomest of its family. Its broad and rounded crest of pure white, with an edging of jetty black, and which it closes or spreads out at pleasure, renders the male of this species conspicuous on the waters to which it resorts.”
Mature drake hooded mergansers are handsome ducks, or should we say handsome hoodies? Dark above and a pure white breast with chestnut-colored sides, its crested black head and large, conspicuous white patches accents an already arresting looking bird — especially when he erects his crest effectively doubling the overall size of his stunning head plumage.
Hens are attractive, too. Though mostly a gray and brownish-colored bird, the female’s elegant and crested cinnamon-colored head gives her not only a distinguished and comely appearance but the look of a completely different species altogether, too.
Many a birder is fooled into believing that the sight of a female hooded merganser is something other than what she truly is.
Hooded mergansers, expert divers they are, are mostly meat-eating ducks. Whereas many species of ducks — especially dabblers such as mallard and teal — feed mostly on plant materials, you might say that the hooded merganser is carnivorous.
A special little duck affectionately called “hoodies” are one of the prettiest ducks around, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.