The hooded merganser is an elegant little duck. It is the smallest of the mergansers in North America and is only found in North America. Only the Eurasian smew is smaller and then, only slightly.

A pair of “hoodies,” as they are often affectionately called, put on quite the performance today. They were so entertaining and very close. It was as if they were in sync with the covid social distance rule. A small crowd, keeping large distances from other spectators gathered on a bridge to watch the show. Feeding, diving, and swimming under the clear, clean water of the bird sanctuary was a sight to behold. As they surfaced, the birds were wearing sparkling water droplets and sometimes had aquatic vegetation hanging out of their thin, serrated bill.

Red-breasted and common mergansers are mainly eaters of fish, but the smaller of the three, the “hoody,” is more versatile in its diet, according to the Cornell Ornithological Laboratory. Included in its repertoire besides small fish are amphibians, crayfish, aquatic insects, mollusks and even vegetation. When underwater it hunts by sight in shallow, clear water, but can also feed with just its head underwater (Cornell). Their eyes have a second transparent eyelid called the “nictitating membrane” that closes over the eye when the bird is underwater to protect it.

Hooded mergansers are cavity nesters just like wood ducks. They prefer to be close to water and will use cavities in either dead snags or live trees. They will also nest in boxes. As with most species the cavity must be specific to them. A three-to-five-inch opening suits hooded mergansers best whether in a tree or a nest box. We are always told to clean nesting boxes at the end of the breeding season, but the “hoodie” prefers to take up residence in a nest cavity or box lined with at least some of last year’s nesting material. A brand-new nest box could be made attractive by placing wood shavings inside. If a box does need to be cleaned, I think wood shavings could be added after cleaning.

The hooded merganser is a small duck with a thin, serrated bill and a fan shaped crest that emphasizes the head when fanned out, making it look rather large. Both the male and the female have such crests that can be raised and lowered. The male wears a large white patch on his black head that changes shape when it lowers or raises his crest.

When it is lowered, for example, the white patch takes on the look of a white stripe behind the eye. The female sports a cinnamon-colored crest and a brownish grey body. At first glance, she appears to be brownish overall. Like the male she has a thin, serrated, straight bill and the movement of her crest also changes the shape of her head. The male with his white chest dressed in black and white stripes and chestnut-colored sides is often referred to as being flamboyant, and I must say that word comes to mind, especially when he throws back his head and puffs out his chest when trying to win the affection of a female!

“Hoodies” are indeed elegant little ducks. The male is a dashing figure. The female is equally elegant but perhaps not as dashing in appearance. Together they are a treat to behold. Once seen, this elegant pair will always remain etched in your memory. Maybe it will become one of your favorite birds! Look for them in forested wetlands, marshes and other fresh-water habitats. Happy birding!

“Common Birds of the Long Beach Peninsula,” by Kalbach and Stauffer, is available from Bay Avenue Gallery, Time Enough Books and the Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau.

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