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What Is the Hooded Merganser?

By Angie Bates
Updated May 21, 2024
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A hooded merganser is a type of duck found only in North America. This duck has a fan-shaped crest on the top of its head that can be raised or lowered at will. The second smallest of six total merganser species, the hooded merganser is the smallest in North America. The scientific name for this duck is Lophodytes cucullatus.

Although its non-breeding coloring is less vibrant, consisting more of dark browns and grays, the male's breeding colors are striking. Mostly black on the upper side, its underside is white; its tail and bottom wings, brown. Bright yellow eyes seem particularly vivid against the black facial feathers. Its white crest, outlined in black, appears to be simply a thick white stripe cutting across a dark field when the crest is lowered.

Females have mostly gray undersides, with brown or brown-black upper parts. Their coloring tends to darken as it moves toward the back of the bird. Crests are red-brown and lack any outlining. Females are slightly smaller than males, normally reaching about 17 inches (43 cm) in length, whereas males may grow to 19 inches (49 cm). Both males and females have hooked, serrated beaks, suited for catching fish.

The hooded merganser can be found mostly in the United States and Canada. These mergansers usually breed in the the northern part of their range, but may breed as far south as Georgia. Wintering in more southerly regions, some ducks travel as far south as Northern Mexico. They frequent lakes, ponds, and other wetland areas.

Hunting underwater, by sight, the hooded merganser feeds on small fish, aquatic insects, and crustaceans in fresh water environments. These birds are particularly fond of crayfish. A third eyelid, as well as the ability to control their eyes' refractive properties, allow them to see their prey underwater. To hunt, they dive from a surface position and may swim after their prey to capture it.

During breeding season, the males will perform courtship rituals which involve raising and lowering their crests, as well as specific calls and movement displays. Once the female is receptive, mating occurs on the water. Breeding pairs do not remain together more than a single breeding season.

Nests are made in tree cavities and are lined with feathers. The female lays an average of 13 eggs and incubates them for approximately one month. The hatchlings can feed themselves at a day old and fledge in ten weeks. Young are primarily insectivorous, meaning they eat mainly insects.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Hooded Merganser?

The Hooded Merganser is a small, striking waterfowl known for its distinctive crest that can be expanded or contracted. Males have a bold black and white crest, while females sport a more subtle brown one. They are expert divers, feeding on fish, insects, and crustaceans in freshwater environments.

Where can you find Hooded Mergansers?

Hooded Mergansers are native to North America, thriving in freshwater ponds, lakes, and rivers. They breed in the northern United States and Canada and migrate to the southern United States and Mexico for winter. They prefer forested wetlands and are often spotted in small groups or pairs.

How do Hooded Mergansers breed and nest?

Hooded Mergansers are cavity nesters, often using holes in trees created by woodpeckers or nest boxes. Females lay 8-12 eggs and incubate them for about a month. Remarkably, within 24 hours of hatching, the ducklings leap from the nest and can swim and feed themselves almost immediately.

What do Hooded Mergansers eat?

These adept divers primarily feed on small fish, aquatic insects, and crustaceans. They have serrated edges on their bills that help them catch and hold slippery prey. Their diet varies seasonally and depends on the availability of food sources in their habitat.

Are Hooded Mergansers endangered?

Currently, Hooded Mergansers are not considered endangered. They are classified as "Least Concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, they are susceptible to habitat loss and changes in water quality, which can impact their populations.

How can you identify a Hooded Merganser?

To identify a Hooded Merganser, look for the male's striking white crest surrounded by black, with a yellow eye, and the female's more subdued brown crest. Both sexes have a slender, serrated bill and a compact body. In flight, they exhibit rapid wingbeats and typically fly low over the water.

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