Birds – Red-breasted Merganser

(Merganser Serrator)

Called also:—SHELLDRAKE; SAWBILL; WHISTLER; PIED SHELLDRAKE; GARBILL

Length—22 to 24 inches.

Male—Head and throat greenish black; more greenish above, and with long, pointed crest over top of head and nape; white collar around neck; sides of lower neck and the upper breast cinnamon red, with black streaks; lower breast, underneath, and the greater part of wings white; other feathers black. Back black; lower back and sides finely barred with black and white; a white patch of feathers, with black border, in front of wings, and two black bars across them. Bill long, saw-toothed, red, curved at end, and with nostrils near the base; eyes red;, legs and toes reddish orange.

Female and Young—Similar to the American merganser. Head, neck, and crest dull, rusty brown; dark ashy on back and tail; throat and under parts white, shaded with gray along sides; white of wing restricted to a patch (mirror or speculum) ; no peculiar feathers in front of wing.

Range—United States generally; nests from Illinois and Maine northward to Arctic regions; winters south of its nesting limits to Cuba.

Season—Winter resident and visitor; October to April.

Swift currents of water, deep pools where the fish hide, and foaming cataracts where they leap, invite the red-breasted merganser, as they do its larger American relative; for both birds have insatiable appetites, happily united with marvelous swimming and diving powers that must be constantly exercised in pursuit of their finny prey. Fish they must and will have, in addition to frogs, little lizards, mollusks, and small shell fish; and for such a diet this fishing duck forsakes its northern nesting grounds in winter, when ice locks its larder, to hunt in the open waters, salt or fresh, of the United States. Cold has no terror for these hardy creatures; they swim as nimbly in the icy water of the St. Lawrence as in the rivers of Cuba, and disappear under an ice cake with no less readiness than they do under lily-pads. Food is their chief desire; and rather than let a six-inch fish go, any merganser would choke in its efforts to bolt it.

Their appetite is so voracious that often some of their food must be disgorged from their distended crops before the birds are able to rise from the water. An almost exclusive fish diet, with the constant exercise they must keep up to secure it, makes their flesh so rank and tough that no sportsman thinks of shooting the mergansers for food; and by sudden, skilful dives the birds are as difficult to kill as the true ” water witches.” Only the youngest, most inexperienced housekeeper thinks of buying any saw-billed duck in market; the serrated edges indicating that the bill is used as a fish chopper, and fish food never makes flesh that is acceptable to a fastidious palate.

In the United States, at least, the red-breasted mergansers are far more abundant than the preceding species, which they very closely resemble after the nuptial dress has been laid aside for the brown and gray winter plumage. Males may be distinguished by the color of their breasts at any time; but the females and young of both species are most bewilderingly similar at a little distance. The position of the nostril, near the centre of the American merganser’s bill, and near the base of the red-breasted species, is the positive clew to identity. The latter bird’s croak is another aid. All mergansers look as if they needed to have their hair brushed.

While the construction of the nest of these sometimes con-fused relatives is the same, the red-breasted merganser makes its cradle directly on the ground, among rocks or bushes, but never far from water. It is the female that bears all the burden of hatching the creamy buff eggs—six to twelve—and of feeding and training the young brood; her gorgeous, selfish mate discreetly withdrawing from her neighborhood when nursery duties commence. But the long-suffering mother bird is a perfect pat-tern of all the domestic virtues. ” I paddled after a brood one hot summer’s day,” says Chamberlain, ” and though several times they were almost within reach of my landing net, they eluded every effort to capture them. Throughout the chase the mother kept close to the young birds, and several times swam across the bow of the canoe in her efforts to draw my attention from the brood and to offer herself as a sacrifice for their escape.”