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Bird of the Week: Hooded Merganser
Meet the world's most hardcore duck.
We’ve featured a lot of different kinds of birds on Bird of the Week. From weavers to pigeons, parrots to shrikes, giant birds and tiny birds, birds on land and birds in the sea and even birds underground, we have covered a vast portion of the bird landscape.
But, I am sorry to say, we have made one very egregious oversight. In the nearly two years that this feature has been around, we have never, not once, written about a duck.
I know, I know. It’s a big problem! I’m not sure why it’s turned out this way. I love ducks, Caitlin loves ducks, and I’ve definitely thought about doing a duck blog, but for whatever reason, it’s never happened.
Well, that injustice ends NOW. And it’s all thanks to one brave reader who took a stand in the comment section of our Bird of the Year post.
Tibjub…thank you. For speaking up, and speaking out, and using your voice to make a change. (Also, Google tells me that Shai-Hulud is either the big sandworm thing from Dune or the metalcore band named after the big sandworm thing from Dune; whichever you’re praying to, Tibjub, we’re glad to help answer those prayers.)
So. To the duck. We knew that we couldn’t just choose any old duck for such a historic occasion. It had to be a duck that would wow the world. And we think we’ve found such a duck.
Meet…the hooded merganser.
Talk about an introduction!!! Just look at this bird. The brilliant yellow eye, the jutting bill, the rippling feathers, the noble posture…am I forgetting something? Oh right, THE CREST! OH MY GOD THE CREST!!!!
THE. CREST. WOWZA. It’s unforgettable. It’s sensational. It’s inimitable. And that’s not all: the crest can be raised or lowered as the hooded merganser sees fit. It has total crest control! Here’s what that looks like.
That is, if I could use a phrase from my Bay Area youth, hella cool.
Female mergansers, as is typical in our male chauvinist bird universe, are not quiiite as flashy, but they look awesome too.
Despite all of this ostentation, hooded mergansers are apparently quite solitary and chill when it’s not breeding season. They just do their thing, I guess. Hooded mergansers can be found, at various points in the year, across almost the entirety of the United States and in most of the parts of Canada where people live. They prefer small bodies of water like ponds and streams, and they make their nests in the hollows of trees. (This is just one of the many reasons we shouldn’t be cutting down trees all the time: mergansers need those trees!) Hooded mergansers are actually the runt of the North American merganser litter—the males top out at around 1.5 feet long.
Even though they’re on the smaller side, hooded mergansers punch waaay above their weight. First, let’s talk about their diet.
Mergansers are unique to the duck world. Whereas most ducks get their meals by foraging on little underwater creepy-crawlies and plants, mergansers are the only kinds of ducks that eat fish. (They also like crustaceans.) Their bills are also different to normal duck bills—narrow and serrated. All the better to be a noble predator of the sea!
What’s more, mergansers are specially equipped to nab their prey. From All About Birds:
Hooded Mergansers find their prey underwater by sight. They can actually change the refractive properties of their eyes to improve their underwater vision. In addition, they have an extra eyelid, called a “nictitating membrane,” which is transparent and helps protect the eye during swimming, like a pair of goggles.
My eyes can’t do all that! (I mean, they can barely see anything without glasses, so I guess that’s probably an easier place to start rather than wishing for duckvision.)
This all makes for some wild times. Look at these pictures and videos of the hooded mergansers going in for the kill!
Now that is a hardcore duck—maybe the MOST hardcore duck???
I’m not done. Every part of the hooded merganser is incredible. Let’s listen to its call.
OK, that croaking sound with the head bobbing and the “stay out of my way” attitude? Iconic!!! Here’s a bunch of male mergansers croaking around to try to impress a potential paramour.
Here’s what Caitlin said about these videos:
I would probably not want to get in their way either. Can you imagine going about your business and suddenly a merganser rears up like in the next picture? Or that a ton of them start flying into the water like in the next video? I would take the hint and make myself scarce.
Last, but certainly not least: you can’t write about a duck and not mention ducklings. It’s illegal. And boy oh boy oh boy oh boy do the hooded merganser ducklings know how to put on a show.
First of all, they are very cute. But that’s to be expected. What’s less expected is this:
That’s right. Hooded merganser ducklings are born in tree hollows, and their mother almost immediately leaves them alone, goes down out of the tree, and calls to them to join her. And because they can’t fly, the ducklings CLIMB TO THE TOP OF THE HOLE USING SPECIAL CLAWS ON THEIR FEET AND THEN JUMP OUT FROM 50 FEET HIGH ONTO THE GROUND. The first time I watched this video I shouted “that’s INSANE!” And it is. But you know what it also is. AMAZING.
OK, I’m worn out from being so wowed and charmed by these birds. It’s time to bring Bird of the Week’s first-ever duck blog to a close. But I promise you, we will visit the duck world again. You have my word.