Winter is on its way and so are our migratory waterfowl.
Soon our freshwater ponds will be dotted with birds. One of the most attractive is the Hooded Merganser; their white and black hoods are hard to miss.
Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) are small diving ducks. Native to North America, dispersed throughout Canada and the United States, they can be found in forested wetlands and swamps while breeding.
As they are short-distance migrants, during the winter they are more commonly seen in coastal areas. While Hooded Mergansers are seen year-round in South Carolina, the highest concentration is found on the Great Lakes.
All Merganser species have sawbill beaks.
They are long, slender and serrated with a hook at the end and perfect for controlling slippery fish, crustaceans and aquatic insects. Hooded Mergansers have excellent eyesight under water, allowing them to be great hunters. A nictating membrane, analogous to goggles, protects their eyes from debris.
As mergansers are diving ducks, their feet are located further back towards their tail. While this makes it difficult for them to walk on land, it aids in their diving abilities. This foot position allows them to tip the larger portion of their body into the water and then use their webbed feet to propel themselves further down.
This time of year is great for spotting Hooded Mergansers forming mated pairs.
They begin the breeding process over winter, gathering in ponds in small groups. The males develop a large white patch on their hoods and flare these feathers to attract females. After a series of dances, which may include bobbing heads and extending of wings, males and females establish their relationship. They will winter together here in our freshwater ponds before heading further inland to nest.
Hooded Mergansers prefer nesting in cavities anywhere from 10 to 50 feet up in the air. They use cavities in trees, hollowed out by Wood Peckers, as their most common nesting area, but have also been known to use Wood Duck boxes. Females will add some of their down feathers to the nesting area and lay anywhere from nine to 11 eggs. The male Hooded Merganser leaves the female shortly after the start of incubation.
The female incubates the eggs for an average of 33 days.
Within 24 hours of the chicks hatching, the mother encourages them out of the nest. They will go directly to the water, where the chicks instinctively know how to dive and catch insects.
As a form of defense against predators, chicks will dive underwater or freeze in place. Mother Mergansers have also been known to feign injuries to draw attention away from her chicks. The chicks generally leave their mother five weeks after their hatching. Once they reach the age of two, the cycle begins again.
By Kathleen McMenamin, Master Naturalist