Over the course of each year, we see many different species living in and around Hotel Lake. What we see moving on the lake varies by the season and during the winter months several species grab the spotlight. Amongst these are a few species of duck and the smallest and prettiest of these is the Hooded Merganser. Looking across the lake from a distance, the male’s black head and white highlights can make one think it's a loon out there. While the male Hooded Merganser has many similarities to the loon, it is, as you will see, a unique and highly successful creature that we can all grow to understand and appreciate.
In December and on through to March ducks begin to pair, nest and bring up their young. The smallest, liveliest, prettiest and most fun to watch is the Hooded Merganser, to which we dedicate this page.
The smallest of the three North American mergansers is the Hooded Merganser which, in Canada, lives in the eastern Canadian provinces and our Pacific northwest. In southern British Columbia, populations in the coastal and interior areas have grown substantially in recent decades.
Shunning the dry prairie interior of Canada, they thrive in streams, wetlands and small lakes and ponds associated with a forested environment. Those living in the southern interior of our province migrate west and south in the late fall to find warmer habitat near the Pacific coastline and then return to their breeding grounds in early spring.
From observations over past years, we know that the Hooded Merganser is easily observed all year long on the Sunshine Coast. This suggests that some live here permanently. However, during a very cold-winter-freeze up, they may move to larger unfrozen waterbodies or brackish coastal estuaries.
Preferring older forested areas away from humans, they nest in tree cavities and deadfalls along the shorelines. They will also happily occupy man-made nest-boxes when provided.
These are likely the smallest and prettiest of the water birds that visit Hotel Lake. Breeding males have black heads with a white head patch each side on a large crest (a group of upright feathers on the top of its head), a white breast, cinnamon coloured sides and a black back with white strips.
Females and juveniles are brown-grey with darker colouration on the back and a light-cinnamon coloured crest that gives the impression of a human Mohawk hair cut.
If you are close enough to see their eyes, males have yellow eyes and females dark eyes. This is helpful in distinguishing between non breeding males and females who are rather similar in appearance.
Hooded Mergansers are diving ducks and so have a long and thin bill which is serrated to efficiently catch underwater prey. Males have a black bill, females' bills are brown.
The Hooded Merganser can raise or lower the crest on top of its head and this is believed to be signalling associated with mating or danger.
They grow to 13 to 19 inches in length with a wingspan of about 26 inches. Males weigh 1.6 lbs on average with females averaging 1.5 lbs. They live between 11-12 years on average but, in one study it has been documented that they can live more than 15 years.
To improve their underwater hunting and manoeuvring capabilities, their feet are located further back on their bodies. This, however, degrades their capability to walk or manoeuvre quickly on land.
These ducks lie low in the water because they are less bouyant which facilitates diving and underwater foraging. They can stay submerged for about 2 minutes.
Similar to loons, they have short, narrow, pointed wings specialized to minimize drag underwater. As a result they must initiate flight by running across the water and with fast wingbeats to accelerate to flying speed. In flight they appear very different as they keep their head, body, and tail straight so as to be as streamlined as possible.
Because of their limited wing configuration, they must constantly flap their wings when airborne and fly fast. They will only enter a “glide” just before landing on water which entails water skiing to a stop on their web feet.
They are able to adjust the refractive sensitivity of their eyes and have a third eyelid (nictitating membrane) to protect their eyes underwater.
Hooded Mergansers reach sexual maturity after 2 years.
They are generally very solitary in nature, only gathering together to migrate or during the approach of mating season when small groups do congregate on water and hunt together. Pair formation usually happens between November and January. In the period between December through March these pairs begin a process that includes mating, nesting and the bringing-up of the young.
During December a sexually mature male Hooded Merganser will assume its full breeding colours. Courtship may involve several males and females. Males extend the crest on top of their heads fully forward which expands the white patch magnificently. This is accompanied by shaking their heads or thrusting their heads backwards to touch their back and making a croaking sound. Females bob their heads in response and also emit a sharp “gack” sound.
It is the female who chooses the nest site. It is believed they may start scouting for next year’s tree cavity at the end of each breeding season. Nest cavities can be in live or dead trees and are usually close to water. Cavities are typically 10–50 feet off the ground, up to about 90 feet. They prefer cavities with 3–5 inch openings.
The female fashions her nest into a “bowl” using the material already present in the cavity. Later, after she has started laying eggs, she will gradually add down from her belly. Later, after she has started laying eggs, she will gradually add down from her belly.
They are also know to nest in manmade boxes particularly in treeless wetlands and they prefer those boxes with wood shavings or nest material from previous users.
Each female may lay up to a dozen eggs which are nearly round and have shells thicker than most ducks lay. To achieve synchronus hatching, the female commences incubation only after the last egg is laid. It is at this point that the male abandons his mate and departs on a moult migration to distant lakes, leaving the female to cope with the birth and upbringing of the chicks.
Interestingly, nests have been documented to have as many as 40 eggs in them. It seems that other females may sometimes lay some of their eggs in another Hooded Merganser's nest (a practice dubbed: brood parasitism).
This added responsibility will make the ensuing incubation period, which lasts roughly one month, arduous for the female so tasked. Under normal circumstances the female looses 8-16% of her body weight during incubation.
There are many predators in play such as raccoons, snakes, black bears, various predator birds including woodpeckers. The female will use all means to defend them including the dramatic “broken-wing” tactic to try and draw interest away from the eggs.
Hooded Merganser chicks hatch as “precocial” baby birds, meaning they have soft down feathers and are capable of leaving the nest and foraging for themselves a few hours after birth. The young have brown backs, yellowish or reddish cheeks, white underparts, and grayish spots on wings and tail. Their wings are not functional but because they are otherwise born in such a well-developed state, leaving the nest is their first priority. This departure is initiated by the female who calls to them from below. The young chicks then struggle to the nest entrance and to jump to the ground (they cannot fly yet they instinctively flap their tiny wings all the way down). Their mother leads them to water where swimming and diving come naturally. They are not fed but must immediately start finding their own food. The female gives them her attention and protection for a few weeks. It is an incredible thing to watch the mother and her rapidly growing chicks during the first two weeks as they move about on land and water. After 5 weeks, the chicks, now ducklings, achieve independence and their mother is free.
About 70 days after hatching, they become fledglings, meaning that their wings are developed such that flight is possible.
Hunting and Feeding
Of all ducks, Mergansers are the only ones specialized in eating small fish, crayfish, crustaceans, aquatic insects, tadpoles, mollusks and plants. They spend much of their time in underwater foraging.
While foraging underwater, their excellent vision is the primary method of locating their prey. To find underwater video of their swimming capabilities we finally settled on this video which, although it is taken in an artificial pond, it clearly captures the fast-moving swiming agility of these amazing birds.
Despite the destruction of habitat and being over-hunted during the twentieth century, Hooded Merganser populations have increased measurably in the last 4 decades. Part of this success has been greater human awareness about the importance of habitat. Many wild birds nest in tree holes, and landowners, sensitive to this fact, can help by respecting riparian values, by leaving dead trees standing and by providing nesting boxes built with specific species in mind. With so many species in the world being classified as endangered, it is reassuring to see that the tiny Hooded Merganser, that we see on Hotel Lake, is holding its own.
But when we broaden our perspective, there are still deep concerns as the Sunshine Coast Wildlife Project outlines for us in this statement: “The freshwater wetlands and estuaries of the Sunshine Coast provide vital habitat to foraging, breeding, and overwintering waterfowl. These vital habitats are now threatened by rapid human population growth in one of the fastest growing regions in BC. Wetlands are being drained and destroyed to make way for human activity, particularly in coastal lowlands and around the region’s freshwater lakes and estuaries. Remaining wetlands are often degraded, heavily impacted, and lack habitat features needed to sustain species at risk. As development intensifies, action is urgently needed to conserve and restore these essential habitats.”
What Can we Do to Help?
By respecting and maintaining the riparian zone around the lake and doing our best to keep contamination from entering the lake, we will be helping to maintain a healthy environment for these birds.
The Hooded Merganser prefers to nest in tree holes situated near the lake and elevated away from predators, but if there is a shortage of trees with suitable holes or cavities, these birds are known to nest further inland. However such locations are at a distance from the waterbody in which they must forage for food. Fortunately, Hooded Mergansers will take readily to nest boxes if they are appropriately designed in size and placement.
The best place to find bird box plans is at 70 Birds: https://70birds.com/bird-species/hooded-merganser/
Not only can you build your own nest box but there is information on the 70Birds website about how to properly mount it. For those so inclined, we have included this a quick-look at one simple plan that is clearly easy to build.
We found a few more videos by Jo Alwood that we think you might enjoy:
Sunshine Coast Natural History Society, (Birds of the Sunshine Coast Checklist). https://sites.google.com/site/scnaturalhistorysoc/Resources/checklist
Bird Watching HQ is one of the best reviews of the 21 types of Ducks found in BC complete with excellent photos.
Bird Atlas, Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia. Recommended reading.
Biodiversity of the Central Coast While the central coast is well north of Hotel Lake this website has some excellent and relative information. https://www.centralcoastbiodiversity.org/hooded-merganser-bull-lophodytes-cucullatus.html
Audubon. A great photo source
All about Birds.