Northwest Nature Log: Beautiful hooded mergansers create big families

Hooded merganser hens are known to sometimes lay dozens of eggs in one nest.

My ritual of feeding the duck crew first thing every morning has gotten shorter. The hens have mostly disappeared into the dense reed and yellow iris beds across the pond, where they are tucked away on shaggy nests, brooding eggs. From a winter count of about 30 hens and drakes, I’m down to around 10, and seven of those are drakes.

The nesting hens do their best to avoid open water where predators will come looking. The otter trio has visited already. Sleek heads pop up, eyes bright and whiskers twitching, as they case the shores, looking for a hapless duckling or two.

Along with the mallards, the hooded merganser hens are nesting. These smaller ducks have beautiful fan-shaped head crests: the males’ crests are black and white to match their natty body feathering. Females’ crests are brownish-rust, also like their body feathering. This helps them blend in more easily with their surroundings when they have youngsters in tow.

Mergansers like to nest in wood duck boxes, far off the ground. They really prefer hollowed out cavities in tree trunks, but those are, sadly, becoming harder and harder to find. (We can help wood ducks and mergs by putting up nesting boxes, built to specifications that they will accept a suitable homes. Just Google “nest box” for how-to.)

I thought my box was too near the street, but the hen disagreed and set up housekeeping last year. She has a nice view of the water and afternoon sun, when there is any. She was lucky that no aggressive starlings decided to kick her out and use the box themselves. Even though starlings are much smaller, they are determined and they fight dirty. Often the duck gives up after repeating peckings and noisy invasions.

Wood duck and merganser hens are quite stealthy in their comings and goings from the nest boxes. The merganser male doesn’t help out with brooding the eggs or feeding the female, so she must leave the nest briefly to feed, drink and bathe each day. The hen gently covers her eggs with downy feathers and grasses to keep them warm in her short absence.

Even though I put in a lot of time watching the box last year for an exit, the next thing I knew, proud mother was in the water with her brood. It had been about five weeks.

Merganser hens will lay eggs in each other’s nests, which can result in some huge broods. One researcher found a nest with 36 eggs in it. That would keep any mother pretty busy.

This hen had a healthy brood of 13. Merganser ducklings are tiny and charming. They are known to hitch a ride on the hen’s back or peer charmingly from under a folded wing. Of course, this isn’t to impress any nearby humans with their cuteness — it’s warm and dry on the hen’s back. The ducklings may be only a day or so old when they are called to the water by the hen. Unlike robin chicks, pink helpless lumps, ducklings emerge from the egg fluffy, strong and ready to go. But a brief restful ride can be a good thing.

The merganser pair are back again this year. They had been easy to spot every day in the pond, the male attentive to the hen. But I haven’t seen them for a few days, and I’m not sure if she took up residence in the box again. I’ve been watching, but she is wily and careful. I’ll watch for her appearance with her fluffy brood as spring deepens around us.

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