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Illinois hunting and fishing

A hooded merganser and its striking feather crest. Photo by Chris Young.

Hoodies in the hood

April 13, 2011 at 09:52 PM

DNR District Biologist

By late spring, most migratory waterfowl have fled southern Illinois for the prairie potholes, lakes and ponds of the north-central United States and Canada. 

Local wetlands so recently bustling with activity now seem quiet. 

But not all pine for the north country when love is in the air. 

Everyone is familiar with the resonant, melodious squeal of the wood duck and the glamorous plumage of the woody drake.

But fewer notice the other resident member of the family dubbed Anatidae by taxonomists. 

There is indeed another paddler of the placid water that calls this part of the world home. 

Not so noticeable as the brilliantly colored and vocal woody, but every bit as much a part of area lakes, ponds, sloughs and swamps along the Cache River in the spring, is the dapper hooded merganser. 

The male hooded merganser is not as colorful as the wood duck.

He is not as numerous as the common or re-breasted merganser.

He seldom calls, and when he does it is a pitiful, deep, rolling frog-like growl.

Still, he is one of the most strikingly handsome of all ducks. 

The drake hooded merganser has brilliant gold eyes, black back, chestnut sides, white breast bounded by black and white stripes, and a large, black-trimmed white crest that is second to none in the waterfowl world. 

Their bills are thin and serrated for catching and securely holding small fish. 

Hooded mergansers are cavity nesters and compete with wood ducks for suitable nest sites in the bottomland forests and swamp forests where they are found. 

Both will use old stumps and fallen logs as well. 

Nest sites can be as much as one-half mile from the nearest water. 

Female hooded mergansers lay an average of 9-11 eggs. 

The male abandons the female soon after incubation begins, leaving her to incubate the eggs and care for the young on her own. 

In like manner as wood duck chicks, young hoodies leap from nest to ground within 24 hours after hatching. 

After this perilous leap, the journey from where they land to water is perhaps the most dangerous of their lives, as they are extremely vulnerable to predators at this time. 

Once in the water they will remain with mom for around five weeks.

Hooded mergansers are the only merganser restricted to North America and they are the smallest. 

Only the Smew, a closely related species of Europe and Asia is smaller. 

Their diet consists almost entirely of animals, mainly small fish, frogs, amphibian and insect larvae, and aquatic insects. 

They dive expertly in search of these food items, which they locate by sight. 

They prefer clear, calm waters, but in the winter will brave even the swiftest streams to search for food. 

During severe cold spells, they will migrate short distances to find open water.

This spring, be sure to look for the well-dressed fellow with the huge fan-like white crest trimmed in shiny black. 

Their mating ritual is a joy to watch. 

They splash about, chasing and diving raucously, their sleek feathered bodies seemingly impervious to water. 

And, oh, what a hat. 

Proud as any dandy, the male hoody will find every excuse to parade about with his top-knot fully flared. 

Who can blame him? 

To hide such glorious headgear would diminish the wonderful diversity and character that makes hearts glad each spring in southern Illinois.

Mark Guetersloh is the Illinois Department of Natural Resources natural heritage biologist for the district that includes the Cache River.

Your CommentsComments :: Terms :: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Nice story, hooded mergansers are very beautiful ducks, also very under-appreciated by uneducated waterfowlers.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/19 at 02:01 AM

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