While many of New England’s Hooded Mergansers migrate and spend the winter on the coast, they can also be found inland this far north if there is open water and a good supply of slow-moving fish, insects and crayfish. Look for this elegant duck on small open bodies of freshwater, including ponds and rivers. The males have bold black and white markings including a striking crest, or “hood.” The females are more subtly colored, but in the right light, their golden cinnamon crests can rival the males.’
The number of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) is beginning to build as their fall migration from eastern Canada breeding grounds to southeastern U.S. gets under way. Late migrants, Hooded Mergansers won’t reach the peak of their migration until mid-November. They will not completely vanish from sight, however, as many Hooded Mergansers remain in New England on open marshes, ponds, rivers and creeks where they can find fish and crustaceans to feed on throughout the winter.
Although the number of tail feathers is quite variable across groups of birds, the most common number is 12. The left and right tail feathers are mirror images of each other. The outermost tail feather is highly asymmetrical (narrow outer vane, broad inner vane). The feathers become more symmetrical toward the center, with the two central tail feathers usually exactly symmetrical (vanes on both sides of the shaft equal in width). There is a similar change in the curvature of the tail feather shafts from outer to central, with the shafts of the outermost tail feathers usually strongly curved, gradually straightening toward the center, with the central tail feathers shafts completely straight.
Groups of birds can have certain tail feather traits in common. For instance, the tail feathers of most waterfowl are short (although the pictured female Hooded Merganser’s are relatively long), while many gamebird tail feathers are used in display and thus are boldly patterned and/or elongated. Woodpecker tail feathers have pointed, stiff tips that the birds use to brace themselves against tree trunks. Even within a group, such as waterfowl, there can be specific tail traits such as the drake Northern Pintail’s long twin tail feathers and the drake Wood Duck’s squared-off tail feathers.
In northern New England you are most likely to see Hooded Mergansers in the spring and fall when they are migrating to and from their breeding grounds in northern Canada (some nest in New England, as well). Hooded Mergansers tend to arrive in their breeding areas as soon as the ice starts to melt, and have been known to start laying eggs in March in Massachusetts and April in Vermont. Often some of the earliest eggs laid in a nest will freeze and crack and never hatch.
Hooded Mergansers are cavity nesters, frequently choosing trees that are close to ponds, marshes, swamps or streams. They compete with Wood Ducks for nest boxes put out by humans, and females of both species may lay eggs in the same nest, with one or the other incubating the eggs. Sometimes the duck that initiated the nest does the incubation, but more often the hen laying the majority of the eggs will do so. Because both species have the same incubation period, all the eggs hatch at the same time.
Hooded Mergansers are short-distance migrants that can be found in eastern North America year round where ponds and rivers remain open and slow-moving fish, insects and crayfish are plentiful. Some individuals migrate south and southwest in winter — 80% of birds banded in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York were recovered in coastal Atlantic states from New Jersey to Florida. A smaller number actually migrate north to spend winters in the Great Lakes and southern Canada. While numbers swell in March/April and November in northern New England due to migration, if there is open water you may well see Hooded Mergansers this far north throughout the winter.
Within 24 hours of hatching, Hooded Merganser ducklings leap anywhere from 8 -90 feet from their arboreal cavity nest down to their mother, who is calling to them from the water below. Capable of swimming and diving right away, the ducklings begin feeding themselves immediately. Weighing little more than an ounce, they mostly eat insects, including backswimmers, water boatmen and diving beetles. Eventually, as the ducklings grow, they work their way up to fish and crustaceans — particularly crayfish, such as the pictured merganser has caught. In addition to its size, the lack of a real “hood” indicates that this Hooded Merganser is a youngster.