Grays Harbor Birds — Hooded Merganser

This photo by Gregg Thompson clearly shows two poses of the male Hooded Merganser in courtship display, and the female checking them out. I will regretfully desist from making any human comparisons. Suffice it to say, the boys know how to strut their stuff, and they are definitely looking fine. These little ducks are easy to spot out on the water; they stand out like a neon sign against the background of water and plants.

In “The Birder’s Handbook,” there is a paragraph that theorizes the complexity of duck breeding displays is due to the concentration of ducks into small areas to breed, and they are in full view of one another; the pressure must be fierce! The term, “anthropomorphizing” (attributing human feelings or thoughts on a non-human) comes to mind; can’t you just hear it? “Is that the best you can do? C’mon, man…step it up a notch; watch this.” I rest my case with the photo. Here are some facts.

Physical Description: The smallest merganser commonly found in Washington, the male in breeding plumage has olive-brown sides, a black back with white stripes down the middle of a few long feathers, a white breast with two black bars, like collars, from back to front, and a crest that opens like a fan. The crest is mostly white with a black border that extends down onto the face. Females have a reddish-brown crest that sweeps backward and are brownish-gray, as are the juvenile and the non-breeding males. The bill is thin with serrated edges for holding captured prey, especially fish.

Habitat: In winter, mergansers can be found on small ponds, coastal estuaries, and bays. They can be found in brackish or salt water but prefer fresh. During migration they visit a wider range of habitats, such as open water, along river banks, and in tidal creeks. Their favorite habitat for breeding is forested, freshwater wetlands, preferably with emergent vegetation, and containing standing dead trees.

Behavior: The most recognizable behavior is during courtship on the wintering grounds, when pair bonds are formed. There you will see fanning of the crest, head-throwing (where the male jerks his head backwards to touch his back while fanning his crest), while making low, gravelly, groaning calls, while the female eggs on the males, bobs her head, and replies with her own hoarse “gack”.

Diet: Hooded Mergansers have a more diverse diet than other mergansers; they can see underwater, so they fish and hunt crustaceans and aquatic insects.

Nesting: Hooded Mergansers start breeding at the age of two, and may hunt for nest locations for following years. They nest in cavities in trees near water, or in man-made nest-boxes, lined with wood chips, dry grasses, and/or leaves, and down. The female lays 10 to 12 eggs in her own nest or may lay eggs in the nests of other cavity-nesting ducks, including Wood Ducks. This is known as egg-dumping or brood parasitism. The male leaves after she begins to incubate the eggs, which may explain why she lays eggs in another’s nest! Incubation lasts an average of 33 days. Within 24 hours of hatching, the young jump from the nest to either the thickly carpeted forest floor, or into the water if the nest cavity is in a tree in the water. They are able to swim well and can find their own food, but the female tends to them and helps them locate food-rich areas for a few weeks, then leaves before they fly at about 70 days.

Migration Status: Hooded Mergansers on the coast of Washington may migrate short distances, leaving coastal wintering areas in April and returning by mid-November.

Conservation Status: Thanks to wetland restoration projects and man-made nest boxes, Hooded Mergansers have been recovering from the double whammy of habitat destruction and over-hunting prior to the twentieth century.

Where to Find In Grays Harbor: In the winter, these ducks can be seen on small ponds and in wetlands and marshy areas. They are also fairly common breeders in suitable habitat, particularly if a nest-box is provided in a tree near a body of fresh water. They head away from the coast in the summer, into wooded lowland areas.


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