Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) is the smallest North American merganser. They are characterized by their black, needle-nosed pliers-like bill, a black mohawk with a “D” of white plumage within, and bright yellow eyes. The chest is white with two collars of black plumage sectioning off the ruffous brown sides. The pitch-black wings adorned with a white speculum creates a streaking effect down their back. Females also display the mohawk plumage that is brown/gray with a light chestnut brushed near the top. The rest of the body plumage matches the brown/gray of the head except their white underbelly. Juvenile hooded mergansers closely resemble hens without the longer feathers on the head.
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Hooded mergansers are common residents in the forested regions around the Great Lakes, the eastern half, and the northwest corner in the United States. Those that migrate are found throughout Canada, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota. This species readily uses natural and manmade nesting cavities that the females selected and may use again in subsequent years. Like other species of birds, hooded merganser hens will deploy broken wing distractions, leading nest predators away from her eggs or nestlings. Ducklings do not stay in the nest long after hatching, reportedly leaving the nesting cavity within a day of hatching to head towards water. Hooded mergansers overwinter in the southern U.S. half and partially into Mexico.
Diet is predominately fishes which they can hunt underwater with the use of a third, membranous eyelid that allows sight and keeps the eyes dry. They also feed on crawfish, amphibians, and vegetation in clear, shallow waters preferably found in forest ponds or rivers.
Similarly to wood ducks, flooded timber and shrub-scrub habitats are favored habitats during hunting season. In low light, flying hooded mergansers are discernible from wood ducks by their rapid, shallow wingbeats, wing shape, relatively pointed tails and head shape. On the water, they seem to ride especially low relative to wood ducks.
HOODED MERGANSER. Smallest of the 3 North American mergansers, they’re the only species in their genus, which references their prominent crest. Seem to see them mostly in association flooded brush, snags and woodlands. They’re distinguished from wood ducks during low light conditions by their tapered tail shape (wood ducks squarish), and to me especially by the extremely fast, extremely shallow wing beats. To these old eyes it’s more like they’re fluttering real fast than flapping. And it’s sometimes audible. An estimated 80% of Hooded Merganser diet is fish, and they’ll generally overwinter where there’s open water. Funny story was an acquaintance went hunting one morning and shot a few, not recognizing them as anything but “a duck.” With nothing particularly nice to say about it, I said nothing. The following year, over cocktails, he asked how I cooked ducks. Told him several favorite ways. He described his wife as a very, very good cook, but explained that the time she’d cooked ducks they were horrible and had stank up the whole house. Having nothing good to say about that either, I said again nothing at all.