As a rule, ducks are pretty strange looking. Their funny, rounded bills and long necks always make me chuckle a little. Still, today’s duck, the hooded merganser, goes out of its way to be more amusing.

Hooded mergansers live in North America, primarily around the Great Lakes region. In winter, the ducks migrate to warmer climes, particularly the coast of California, and along the Atlantic coast from Delaware to Texas. Like all ducks, mergansers need to be near water, and so usually prefer forested wetland habitats. They like small, freshwater ponds that have lots of vegetation, but will also inhabit large wetlands, brackish swamps, and estuaries.

A female hooded merganser with her crest up. Image by Tobias, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

These ducks are the smallest species of merganser in North America, reaching only 40-49 cm in length. There is distinct sexual dimorphism in the species, especially in the breeding season, when female birds sport brown-grey plumage, while the males adorn themselves with black feathers on the back and head, complete with stunning white markings. Both sexes have hooded crests that can be raised or lowered; it is these crests that make the mergansers so hilarious looking.

So the females look a little strange, but the male mergansers take it to a whole other level. They are kind of pretty, in a weird way. Image by Ken Billington, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Breeding season for hooded mergansers is long, occurring from February to June. The birds form monogamous pairs, which stay together until the female begins incubating her eggs. She lays between seven and fifteen eggs, and spends a rough month incubating them. During this period, the female merganser loses 8-17% of her body weight. Mergansers nest in cavities, mostly in large, mature trees.

Once the eggs hatch, it only takes the ducklings 24 hours to get out of the nest and follow their mother to water. They are well developed after hatching, being able to dive and feed as soon as they reach the water.

Hooded mergansers are not great fliers, being most at home in the water. They are excellent divers, and use this skill to find food. They feed on fish, insects and other aquatic invertebrates, such as crabs and crayfish.

Mergansers were widely hunted in the early 1900s, but interest in hunting the birds has since declined. They are threatened by deforestation and subsequent habitat loss, especially since they require mature trees for nesting. Hooded mergansers will use manmade nests, which could protect them from the worst effects of deforestation. These ducks are not currently threatened, so hopefully with conscientious deforestation (if there is such a thing), we can keep these guys from becoming endangered.

Cover image by Mike’s Birds from Riverside, CA, US, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons