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Hooded Mergansers


Photos by Nancy Brannon

Every year in November, some delightful little ducks visit the large pond on our farm and stay several weeks. They usually come just before Thanksgiving and stay until early December. But this year they came early: just before Halloween, and stayed in residence, altering between our pond and the neighboring pond, until Thanksgiving.

They are very shy ducks and with any inkling of a human around, they fly off. So I have to be very careful, quiet, and try to find a place to view them behind trees or shrubbery. Still, I unintentionally alarm them, and usually the resident Great Blue Heron is the first to leave. But I have been able to catch a few photos of these elegant ducks. It’s interesting to watch them dive underwater for their food.

The males are easy to spot because of the large white patch on the side of their heads. They are a small duck with a slender bill and their head appears oversized for their body. Nonbreeding males have a ragged crest that is cinnamon brown. The females also have a brown crest, which is movable, to give the head varied shapes.

The Cornell Lab “All About Birds” website has some great close-up photos of them with information about their habits and habitat. Here’s how All About Birds describes them:

“ ‘Hooded’ is something of an understatement for this extravagantly crested little duck. Adult males are a sight to behold, with sharp black-and-white patterns set off by chestnut flanks. Females get their own distinctive elegance from their cinnamon crest. Hooded Mergansers are fairly common on small ponds and rivers, where they dive for fish, crayfish, and other food, seizing it in their thin, serrated bills. They nest in tree cavities; the ducklings depart with a bold leap to the forest floor when only one day old.

“In eastern North America, many Hooded Mergansers move south and southwest in winter, but some actually migrate north to spend winters in the Great Lakes and southern Canada. Most of the Hooded Mergansers that breed in the upper Midwest migrate along the Mississippi River. Hooded Mergansers are late fall migrants, sometimes moving just ahead of winter ice. In spring they arrive early at breeding grounds, within a few days of the ice melting.

“Hooded Mergansers eat small fish, aquatic insects, crustaceans (especially crayfish), amphibians, vegetation, and mollusks. They dive in clear, shallow forest ponds, rivers, and streams and locate prey by sight, with eyes that are specially adapted to seeing underwater. They propel themselves with their feet and use their slender, serrated bills to grasp their prey.”

We have been privileged for several years to offer a host pond in late fall for these delightful ducks. We had about 16 to 20 ducks stop over this year. One day I saw a couple of Mallards along with them.

Find information about these ducks at the Audubon Society website:

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