Hooded Merganser

Lophodytes cucullatus

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Photo of a hooded merganser pair floating on water.
Hooded mergansers have crests that trail behind the head or can be raised to create a circular shape.
Family

Anatidae (ducks, geese, swans) in the order Anseriformes

Description

Adult male has black head, neck, and back; the black-margined white crest and chestnut flanks of the male are very distinct. Female is brown with a rust-colored crest. The bill is slim, serrated, with a hooked tip; bill is dark in male and bicolored in female. Male gives a low, froglike sound; female a hoarse “gak.” Mergansers are divers, and the legs are far back on the body; on land, the posture is upright. The head crest may be raised to a nearly circular shape or lowered so that it trails behind the head. Hooded mergansers can leap straight out of the water and is our only merganser that can do so.

Similar species: Common and red-breasted mergansers don’t breed in Missouri and are only seen as migrants and as winter residents. The males of both have green heads and red bills; red-breasted males have a dark chest and ragged crest; common merganser males have a white chest and lack a crest. The females of both have rusty heads and gray bodies.

Key Identifiers

 

  • Rapid wingstrokes, giving impression of great speed
  • thin, pointed bill

Drake:

  • white on trailing edge of wing
  • thin white crest is sometime raised, sometimes flattened
Size

Length: 18 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).

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Photo of a hooded merganser pair floating on water, with their crests raised.
Hooded Merganser Pair
In Missouri, the hooded merganser is an uncommon transient and a rare summer and winter resident (uncommon in southeast).

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Photograph of a male Hooded Merganser swimming
Hooded Merganser (Male)

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Photo of male hooded merganser in flight.
Hooded Merganser Male in Flight
Mergansers fly quickly because their wings are small relative to their body weight.

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Photo of a hooded merganser pair floating on water, with female's crest raised.
Hooded Merganser Pair
Hooded mergansers hunt fish and other prey by diving underwater. The serrated bill helps them grab slippery fish.

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Photo of a male hooded merganser floating on water, with crest raised.
Hooded Merganser Male
A merganser drake is striking with his black and white pattern, chestnut flanks, and ability to raise his head crest.

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Photo of four male hooded mergansers courting a female.
Hooded Merganser Courtship Display
Often, several male hooded mergansers court a single female at the same time. It can be an elaborate display!

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Photo of three male hooded mergansers performing courtship display.
Hooded Merganser Courtship Display
Hooded mergansers are usually silent, but during their courtship displays the males give a low, froglike, croaking sound.

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Photograph of a female Hooded Merganser swimming with chicks.
Hooded Merganser Female Swimming with Chicks
Hooded mergansers breed in our state, nesting in tree cavities. The downy chicks leap from the nest to the forest floor the day after hatching.

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Photo of a male hooded merganser taking flight from water.
Hooded Merganser Male Taking Flight
Hooded mergansers can leap straight out of the water and is our only merganser that can do so.
Habitat and conservation

Usually seen foraging on rivers, in large streams, and in wooded areas on lakes. It nests in tree cavities on river oxbows, in wooded areas near or over marshes, and in swamps. In winter, usually seen mainly in southern Missouri.

Foods

Forages on rivers, in large streams, and in wooded areas on lakes for fish, frogs, and aquatic invertebrates. Hooded mergansers hunt by sight and dive completely underwater to snag their prey. The serrated bill helps them grab slippery fish.

image of Hooded Merganser distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Uncommon transient; rare summer and winter resident (uncommon in southeast).

Life cycle

The hooded merganser regularly breeds in our state. Like wood ducks, they nest in tree cavities and require standing dead trees for this purpose. They also use specially made nest boxes, which you can build using MDC plans. Clutches are 5-13, though females sometimes lay eggs in each others’ nests, increasing the number of eggs in a nest. Incubation lasts 26-41 days. The downy chicks leap from the nest to the forest floor the day after hatching.

Human connections

Habitat destruction and overhunting caused populations to decline in the early 20th century, but populations seem stable now. Human-caused habitat disturbance continues to displace mergansers, but landowners putting up nest boxes and allowing dead trees to stand helps keep their numbers healthy.

Ecosystem connections

The hooded merganser, being a species of forest and water habitats, relies on the health of both. Successful nesting requires mature forests complete with dead cavity trees, and successful foraging requires waters that are not overburdened by sediment.