Birdz in the Hood

This time of year, the ponds are full of hooded merganser


By Susan Campbell

Have you seen a male hooded merganser lately? They’re hard to miss with their extensive white hoods, black-and-white chests and chestnut sides. Or perhaps you have noticed a female — a tan bird with a stiff short tail and cinnamon crest? If you’re really lucky, maybe you’ve seen a pair courting, the preliminary dance to successful reproduction. The drake flares his crest and vigorously bobs his head, surely impressing his intended. These handsome little birds are a species of diving duck restricted to North America.  Affectionately known by birders and hunters as “hoodies,” they are quite spunky in spite of their diminutive size.

Hooded mergansers can be found statewide year-round here in North Carolina. Good numbers of migrants from farther north show up during the winter months. But by spring, pairs are more localized.  Breeding birds may turn up on small ponds anywhere from the mountains to the coast. Needing clear water for foraging, they are quite at home on beaver ponds and slow-moving backwaters of smaller rivers and streams.

With a relatively long and sharply serrated bill, hoodies excel at catching fish. These birds have what are called nictitating membranes — an adaptation that protects the eyes but still allows them to see while underwater. Even new ducklings can dive in shallow water to feed within a day of hatching. Alert birders sometimes spot hooded mergansers swimming with their heads submerged, scanning for prey below the surface.

Unlike dabbling ducks such as wood ducks (or “woodies”), hooded mergansers’ legs are set farther back on the body to facilitate propulsion while underwater. This means that they are rather awkward on land, so you will seldom see them walking or even sitting out of the water. Furthermore, these birds need a waterborne running start in order to get airborne. Once aloft, however, their short wings make them quite adept at negotiating flooded timber or grassy marshlands.

Hoodies are one of a few species of waterfowl that use cavities for nesting. Early prospecting for suitable sites begins at the end of the summer.  Females search for holes high up in either live or dead trees to deposit a clutch of up to a dozen white eggs. They prefer an opening of 3 to 5 inches across, making cavities created by larger woodpeckers ideal. Since leading their fledglings overland to water is awkward, nesting usually occurs close to the water, unlike woodies that may nest up to a quarter-mile or more inland.

These animated little birds are quite long-lived with individuals surviving ten years or more.  Furthermore, breeding productivity is quite good nowadays since hoodies have adapted to man-made boxes for nesting. Regardless, seeing hooded mergansers in the warmer months in the Sandhills or Piedmont is quite a treat indeed!  OH

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