Freshwater Birds – Hooded Merganser

(Lophodytes cucullatus)

Called also: HAIRY HEAD; WATER PHEASANT; HOODED SHELLDRAKE

Length—17 to 19 inches.

Male—Handsome semicircular black crest with fan shaped patch of white on each side of greenish black head; upper parts black, changing to brown on lower back; lower fore neck, wing linings, and underneath white, finely waved with brownish red, and dusky on sides. Two crescent shaped bands of black on sides of breast. A white speculum or mirror on wing, crossed by two black bars. Bill bluish black, with nostrils in basal half; eyes yellow.

Female—Smaller; dark ashy brown above, minutely barred with black; more restricted and reddish brown crest, lacking the white fan; under parts white; sides grayish brown.

Young—Similar to female, but without crest; no black and white bars before wing; wings scarcely showing the white mirror.

Range—North America; nests throughout its range; winters in southern United States, also in Cuba and Mexico.

Season—Chiefly a winter resident and visitor south of the Great Lakes and New England.

Unlike the two larger mergansers that delight in rushing torrents and in making daring plunges beneath them, this strikingly beautiful “water pheasant,” as it is sometimes called, chooses still waters, quiet lakes and mill-ponds for a more leisurely hunt after small fish, mollusks, and water insects, adding to this menu roots of aquatic plants, seeds, and grain. It is claimed that this variation in the fish diet, and the consequent lack of hardening of the muscles, make the merganser’s flesh edible; and in spite of its saw-toothed bill, the certain index of rank, fishy flesh, epicures insist that this is an excellent table duck; but in just what state of rawness it is most delicious, who but an epicure may say ?

“It seems an undue strain on the imagination, not to say palate, to claim that any of the fish-eating ducks are edible,” says Mr. Shields. “Men who kill everything they can find in the woods, in the fields, or on the water, say all mergansers, coots and grebes are good if properly cooked. When asked what this proper method of cooking is, they say the birds should first be par-boiled through two or three waters; that they should then be well baked, stewed, fricassed, or broiled, and flavored with rashers of bacon and onions, potatoes, etc. This means, then, that the bird should be so treated as to rob it of all its original quality, and to reduce it to a condition simply of meat. A hawk, an owl, a cayote, a catfish, a German carp, or even a dogfish may be made edible by such treatment. If a bird or a fish is not fit to eat without all this manipulation and seasoning, it is not an edible animal in the first place. Then why kill it ? ”

Like the wood duck, golden-eye, bufflehead, and its immediate kin, the hooded merganser goes into a hollow tree or stump to build a nest of grasses, leaves, and moss, lined with down from the mother’s breast, and lays from eight to ten buffy white eggs. Now is the time that the handsome male disports himself at leisure, and at a distance, while the patient little mother keeps the eggs warm, feeds the yellowish nestlings, carries them to the lake one by one in her bill, as a cat carries its kittens; teaches them to swim, dive, and gather their own food, and to fly by midsummer; defends them with her life, if need be; and welcomes home the lazy, cavalier father when the drudgeries are ended and the young are fully able to join the migrating flocks that begin to gather in the Hudson Bay region in September. It is she who ought to wear the white halo around her head instead of the drake.

Sportsmen often find small companies of hooded merganzers in the same lake with mallard, black, wood, and other ducks that, like them, delight in woody, well-watered interior districts. Mr. Frank Chapman found them in small ponds in the hum-mocks of Florida; and the author first made their acquaintance on a poultry stand in the French market in New Orleans.