| Sep 04, 2008

Sept 4, 2008 - Outdoors

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Outdoors in the LandO'Lakes - September 4, 2008 The Common Merganser Outdoors in the Land O'Lakes by Lorraine Julien

It’s that time of year again when Mother Merganser begins touring with her large family in search of food. I am always impressed with the number of young birds she is able to raise to maturity – I’ve counted as many as 13 or 14 young in our bay but apparently the average is more like 9 to 12. When they are tiny, the little chicks try to squeeze on mom’s back but it’s almost impossible for them all to hitch a ride, given their numbers. Dad doesn’t bother hanging around once incubation of the eggs begins. The males then gather in large flocks to socialize, and begin molting their feathers.

The Merganser nest is built in a tree cavity, sometimes as high as 100 feet above the ground, but always near a lake or river.

If you hear a lot of splashing along the waterfront, there’s a good chance it’s a Common Merganser family foraging for food. They can be quite comical. In their search for food, they like to dip their bills and eyes below the surface of the water, just as though they are snorkeling. Mostly they feed on minnows, chubs, suckers, frogs, crustaceans and salamanders.

On a rare occasion, a whole family has spent the night on our dock and the next morning it will look as though it has been whitewashed! We really don’t mind the mess though.

The only thing Common about the Common Merganser is the fact it is so widely distributed across North America. The name “merganser” actually means “diving goose” and the British name for the species is “goosander” meaning “goose-duck”. They are certainly almost as large as geese, with bodies up to 27” long.

It’s interesting to note that the male and female Mergansers look very different from each other – so much so that you’d think they’re from different species entirely. The female has the familiar red head with shaggy feathers which look as though she’s just had a ride in a convertible with the top down! Both birds have white breasts but the male has a dark green head with white flanks and a black back. They are often referred to as “sawbills” because the edges of their bills are serrated in order to better grip their prey.

Like the loons, the hardy Mergansers remain here as long as possible, braving the oncoming ice and diving for fish in frigid waters. In fact, also like loons, they are able to swim high or low in the water, disappearing without a ripple. Like other diving ducks, this largest of the Mergansers must taxi across the water to take flight.

Please feel free to report any observations to to Steve Blight at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Lorraine Julien at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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