Hooded Merganser, Lophodytes cucullatus

The Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) is a small species of duck and the only living member of its genus. Its habitat is swamps and wooded ponds on the northern half of the United States or southern Canada. A common species in captivity in Europe, Hooded Mergansers seen in the wild there are usually regarded as escapes. However, a few have been regarded as genuine wild vagrants. It is a short distance migrant and winters in the US wherever winter temps allow for ice free conditions on ponds, lakes and rivers.

A duck fossil recovered from the Late Pleistocene of Vero Beach, Florida, originally described as Querquedula floridana, was determined to be more closely related to the Hooded Merganser and has since been renamed Lophodytes floridanus, but the exact relationship between the two birds is unknown.

The Hooded Merganser has a crest at the back of the head which can be expanded or contracted. In the adult male, this crest has a large white patch, the head is black and sides of the duck are reddish brown. The adult female has a reddish crest, with much of the rest of the head and body a grayish-brown.

During the breeding season, the male’s plumage changes color. The head, back and neck become black, with white stripes near the chest and tail, and the bird develops a white crest on the back of the head. First-winter birds differ from adult females. All females are dark-eyed whereas in first-winter males, a pale eye is acquired during the winter.

The Hooded Merganser is the second smallest species of merganser, with only the Smew of Europe and Asia being smaller.

It prefers to nest in a tree cavity near the water but will also use a Wood Duck nesting box if available and unoccupied. This species forms pairs in early winter, but the male leaves the female soon after she lays her eggs. After hatching, chicks leave the nest with their mother within 24 hours. They are already able to dive and feed themselves, yet they will remain with their mother for five weeks.

The diet of this bird is mainly fish, crustaceans and aquatic insects. It finds its prey by sight, diving and swimming underwater to catch it.

Image Caption: Male hooded merganser. Credit: Ken Billington / Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0, 2.5, 2.0 and 1.0)