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Hooded Merganser

Common Name: Hooded Merganser.

Scientific Name: Lophodytes Cucullatus.

What to look for?  Whether male or female, look for a duck with an unusual crown, crest, or “hoodie” on their oversized heads. “Hooded” is something of an understatement. Their crest may be described as ornate or even flamboyant, giving the head an oblong shape. While both the male and female have these hoodies, their coloration could not be more different. Adult males have a large black head with a large white patch that varies in size when the crest is raised or lowered - but is always prominent. Adult females have an elegant and distinctive cinnamon crest that can be lowered completely. Their bill is slim, serrated (to snag fish), and with a hooked tip. The male has a dark bill, while the female’s bill is bicolored. Hooded Mergansers have long tails, although these are not always visible. Non-breeding male is small, brownish duck with fairly long, straight, slender bill. The male’s iris is bright yellow, while the iris of a female and immature male is duller brown. And their legs are located far back on the body.

Where can they be found at Carillon Stonegate Pond? On our ponds in early Spring. You may find Hooded Mergansers here in late March or early April. They can be seen on the surface of our ponds. And they may occasionally disappear below the surface as they dive for food.

How big are they? Small for a duck. The Hooded Merganser averages approximately eighteen (18) inches in length. And their wingspan is a short twenty-five (25) inches. Hooded Mergansers weigh in at around twenty-four (24) ounces.

What are their flight patterns? With such short wings, a Hooded Merganser is also not aerodynamically designed, making the take-off difficult. They take flight by running across the water and commence flying with fast wingbeats. They never glide until they are about to land. In flight, Hooded Mergansers sustain a rapid, shallow wingbeat. Their wings produce a soft high-pitched whirring sound in flight.

How else do they behave? Unlike dabbling ducks, Hooded Mergansers swim low in the water – somewhat similar to grebes and cormorants. Hooded Mergansers dive in our ponds and locate prey by sight - their eyes are specially adapted to seeing underwater. With lobes on their toes, they propel themselves through the water and use their slender, serrated bills to grasp their prey. Courtship typically occurs in groups with several males and a few females. Males raise and pump their heads, flap their wings, and give a frog-like croak. While Hooded Mergansers can walk on land, they do this awkwardly as their legs are located far back on their bodies.

What’s for dinner? Hooded Mergansers eat small fish, aquatic insects, crayfish and other crustaceans, amphibians, vegetation, and mollusks. Their diet is broader than that of other mergansers, which dine almost exclusively on fish.

Where do they take up residence? The Hooded Merganser nests in forested areas adjacent to lakes, ponds, and rivers throughout its range. During breeding season, they will be found across the Pacific Northwest and our eastern states. And, during winter, the take up residence along the Pacific Coast of California and in coastal areas from Delaware south and west through Texas.

When and where do they breed and nest? Hooded Mergansers usually breed between March and April in the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes and into New England as well as southern Canada. They build nests in the cavities of trees – some fifty feet above the ground and are usually close to water. The female lays a single clutch of upwards of twelve (12) eggs. These eggs incubate over the next five (5) weeks. Hatchlings leave the nest within 24 hours of hatching, literally jumping from their elevated nests to the ground below. By the time the Hooded Merganser is nearly three (3) months old, it is completely independent.

Where do they migrate? Hooded Mergansers are late fall migrants - sometimes exiting just ahead of winter ice. In spring, they arrive early at breeding grounds – often within days of the ice melting.

What is their conservation status? There is no concern. Hooded Mergansers are fairly common with stable populations, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. They are not on the any watch list.

Do they make any interesting sounds? Hooded Mergansers are usually silent but may call out during courtship and around nest sites. With a voice that sounds more like a frog than a bird, a courting male makes a deep, drawn out, purring croak. Females give a hoarse ‘gack’ call during courtship. Here is a link to the sounds of the Hooded Merganser.

Interesting Facts About the Hooded Merganser:

  • The genus name - Lophodytes - derives from the Greek words: lophos meaning 'crest', and dutes meaning 'diver'. The species name – Cucullatus - means hooded or having a hood.

  • Hooded Mergansers often lay their eggs in other female mergansers’ nests. This is called “brood parasitism”.

  • Hooded Mergansers find their prey underwater by sight, using an extra eyelid, called a “nictitating membrane,” which is transparent and helps protect the eye during swimming, like a pair of goggles.

  • Of the six living species of mergansers, the Hooded Merganser is the only one restricted to North America.

  • The oldest recorded Hooded Merganser was approximately 14 years.

For more information on Hooded Mergansers and sources of information used in this blog (these are the sources that I am using to learn as I blog), please visit All About Birds, Audubon Society, and the University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web.  And the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides a wonderful source of information for anyone interested in learning more about birds.

The Carillon at Stonegate community is very fortunate to have a variety of wetland, forest and prairie environments conducive to a variety of birds and other wildlife, plants and insects. Our community and the Kane County Forest Preserve do an exceptional job in maintaining this natural environment – both for the benefit of the birds and wildlife and for our residents to enjoy.


Take a hike and see what you can find – and identify!

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