Bird Watcher's General Store

Red-Breasted Mergansers - 1/28/05


Dear Bird Folks,

While birding on Cape Cod last week, I saw a flock of some rather (if you'll excuse the expression) odd ducks. When I returned home to Brooklyn, I checked them out in my bird book and discovered that I was seeing "Red-breasted Mergansers." I'd like to know more about them. Could you, in your great wisdom, tell me more about those crazy looking ducks?

-Stewart, Brooklyn, NY

Wisdom Stewart?,

You would like some wisdom? Here's something you might want to consider. The next time you go birding, how about taking your bird book along with you? Books are quite portable now a days and by taking your book along with you, you won't have to rush back to Brooklyn every time you see a new bird. Just a suggestion.

You were right when you said that Red-breasted Mergansers are odd ducks. They are one of the oddest ducks you'll ever see. They always look as though they woke up late for work, took a quick shower and dried their hair by sticking their head out of the bus window. Mergansers had the punk look long before the punks did. As a matter of fact, punk bands used to hire Red-breasted Mergansers to do their hair for them. But the birds were forced out by the powerful Hair Dressers Union (HDU).

The bill of this, and other mergansers, is far from being duck-like. When we think of duck bills we think of those broad flat mallard type bills. The broad bills are made for scooping up seeds off the bottoms of shallow ponds. Mergansers are fish eaters. Their bill is sleek, pointed and filled with fish grabbing tooth-like serrations that point backwards. Instead of a duck bill, a merganser's bill looks more like a hair clip or some other kind of clip that hippies like to use.

One of the favorite foods of these birds is sticklebacks. Sticklebacks? Anybody know what that is? It sounds like a football position to me. "He was an all-American stickleback from Penn State." It turns out sticklebacks are some kind of two inch long fish. And Mergansers are perfectly built for catching them. Not only do they have that custom designed bill, but they are excellent divers and underwater swimmers. A stickleback from Penn State or any place else is in trouble when a merganser is in the mood for a fish dinner.

A few weeks ago some guy came running in to tell us about a gull that was trying to kill or eat a merganser. He said that a gull would land on the back of the merganser and pound on it with it's bill until the duck dove underwater. As soon as the merganser surfaced, the gull would jump back on it instantly. Was the gull really trying to eat the merganser? Looking for any excuse to get out of work, I immediately jumped into the car and drove over to the scene of the maritime assault. But when I got there, all was quiet. After interrogating several eyewitnesses and reading the police report, we determined that the gull was merely trying to steal the duck's lunch and not really trying to eat it. At flight speeds pushing 100 MPH, a healthy Red-breasted Merganser is probably our fastest duck and could have easily left this lunch-stealing gull in the dust if it had wanted to. On the other hand, if the duck was in a weakened state or if it wasnÕt able to fly, it certainly could have become a meal for the gull.

I think it was last week that we wrote about Common Goldeneyes and their crazy courtship display. Does anyone but me remember that? Remember, some guy thought the birds were choking because the drakes were tilting their heads way back and touching their tails? Remember? Well, whatever. Red-breasted Mergansers also have a whacky display, only with them the drakes lurch their heads forward. The bird's shoulders and neck are submerged, while the head and distant body remain afloat, giving the impression of a separate floating head. And if that wasn't weird enough, instead of making duck sounds the drake starts mewing like a cat. I'm not making any of this up, I swear. Evidently the drake figures if a weird display is going to get the babes, he might as well go all of the way. And let's not forget the crazy hairdos.

It's not that we don't want to see you around here Stewart, but if you would like to see Red-breasted Mergansers, without having to drive 250 miles, you could always take a trip to nearby Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Jamaica Bay is one of the best birding spots in the east and has plenty of wintering mergansers. And since it is only a few miles from your house, you can quickly race back and forth to check your bird book, each time you see a new bird.

Artwork by Catherine Clark


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