Hooded Merganser

(photo gallery below)

Hooded Mergansers have been given the nickname of “Hoodies” and “Sawbills”.  They are able to erect the feathers on their heads; when fully erect, the feathers look like a hood which gives them their name.  Hooded Merganser|Bob Jones Bike Trail|Avila Beach, CA You can almost tell what they are thinking by watching the fan-shaped hood raise and lower!  The male uses his black hood with the white patch to scare off predators, warn away rivals, and to attract females.  He also will flatten his hood and the white patch will narrow into a stripe from his eyes to the back of his head.


The Hooded Merganser is our smallest merganser, measuring in at only 18”.  In his breeding costume, the male is sure to get your attention! He has gold eyes and is black above except for a white patch on his fan-shaped crest.  His body is long and slender with brownish-orange sides and a white belly. His breast is also white with two black bars on each side in front of his wings. His rump is gray and his tail is long and a dark grayish-brown.  The dark, narrow, and hooked bill is lined with backward spines or teeth.  This gives the merganser a tight hold on fish. He shows large, white wing patches on his upper, inner wings, easily seen when he is in flight. His legs are dull yellow. In eclipse, the male is similar to the female in appearance, but retains his white wing patches and gold eyes. His crest becomes more mottled, and he has more white on his wings.

The female is mostly brown with a white patch on her chin and wings. She is grayer on the neck than other mergansers.  Overall, she is a light reddish-brown and has a frosted cinnamon crest with white tips.  She has light brown eyes and her bill can have an orange tinge at the base and on the lower mandible. Her legs and feet are greenish in color. Juveniles are similar in appearance to the female. They have more yellow bills, brown eyes and shorter crests.

Range and Habitat

This merganser is the only merganser that lives, breeds, and winters in North America. There are two populations in the United States.  The western group lives in the Pacific Northwest in the spring and fall, and winters from southern Alaska to California.  The eastern population is east of the Mississippi to the Atlantic Ocean.  They are partial to lakes, ponds, and small reservoirs.  They like fast moving streams with gravel bottoms, and lots of standing dead trees for nesting. They are rarely found in salt water. Small groups can be found in the same area year after year.


Hooded Mergansers are quiet, secretive and mostly solitary. They are early migrants.  They have fast and shallow wing beats, and can fly at speeds of 50 mph. They hold their bodies in a long horizontal line when they are in flight and their wings give off a cricket-like sound (loudest in the male). They are agile on water, but clumsy on land because their legs are so far back on their bodies. They are diving ducks and forage by putting their faces just below the water, while paddling.  Once they sight their prey, they will aggressively pursue and capture it under water. They are able to stay submerged up to 2 minutes. A membrane that acts like a third eyelid helps them see underwater. They eat fish, clams, mud crabs, crayfish, tadpoles, frogs, and aquatic insects. Their voice is low croaking or grunting sounds.

Breeding and Nesting

The male will be in his breeding colors by Christmas but nesting doesn’t take place until mid-February.  Hooded Mergansers are monogamous and begin breeding at 2 years of age. The male has a beautiful courtship display. To attract a female, he may make short display flights.  Displaying his fan-shaped crest, head throwing, and head bobbing are common actions he uses to entice the female.  He swims next to her with his crest raised and throws his head back quickly until it lies on his back.  Then, slowly raising his head, he gives a loud frog-like croaking call which can be heard up to a half mile away.  The female will either ignore him or accept him by bobbing her head and flattening her tail on the water.  Mating takes place on the water. Once mated, the male will swim happily around the female in a ritual display.

These ducks nest in woodland areas, in tree cavities, stumps, or logs.  Older females that have bred before usually return to the same nesting site as in previous years, but do not necessarily use the same nest.  Younger females tend to return to the same general area where they were hatched. They have to compete for nesting sites with the Wood Duck, Common Goldeneye, and Common Mergansers. The female pulls downy feathers from her breast to line the nest.  She lays 6-12 eggs and incubates them for 29-33 days.  The male leaves as soon as the female starts to incubate.  The ducklings are covered in down when they hatch; they remain in the nest for 24 hours.  At this time, the female will call to the ducklings, urging them to jump out of the nest. These tiny creatures may plunge 20 feet to reach the ground!  She leads them to water where they are able to feed themselves.  They are able to dive but their first dives are shallow and short. The ducklings are able to fly within 70 days.

Photo Gallery Hooded Merganser

(click to enlarge)