The hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) is the smallest species of merganser breeding in North America. While males of the species can be easily identified by their bold black and white head and chest markings, and sawlike black bill, females are far less distinctive, lacking any vivid markings.
To learn more about the differences and how to identify female hooded mergansers, please keep reading!
Female hooded mergansers are small saw-billed waterbirds. Overall, their plumage is somewhat muted, with gray-brown upperparts and a white lower breast and belly. Their main distinguishing feature is a bushy cinnamon-buff colored crest.
Hooded mergansers are cavity nesters, and the females take the dominant role in site selection and nest construction. By the time incubation begins, male hooded mergansers have abandoned the nest site, leaving females to raise young alone.
Read on to learn more about the appearance, courtship rituals and breeding behavior of female hooded mergansers.
Hooded Merganser female
Male hooded mergansers have black heads, topped with a bushy crest. On each side of their head is a large, rounded white patch. They have bright yellow irises and black bills. Females are mainly gray-brown, with white bellies and underparts. Eyes are brown, and their bills are also brownish-yellow.
Both male and female hooded mergansers have a distinctive fan-shaped crest and saw-shaped bill, but here the similarities end.
Adult males and females are completely unalike in plumage, lowering the chances of any confusion between the sexes. Males have striking zebra-like chest markings and barred black and white wings. Their flanks are a rich chestnut color.
In eclipse plumage, the appearance of male hooded mergansers becomes more drab and muted. They lose their striking coloring, becoming harder to distinguish from females, although at close range they can be told apart easily, as males have a yellow iris, while the female’s is brown.
Female Hooded Merganser
Male Hooded Merganser
Female Hooded Mergansers are referred to as hens, and males are referred to as drakes.
Female Hooded Mergansers can be confused with non-breeding males, as they share similar plumage. Non breeding males maintain their dark beaks, and the yellow iris color of the male is a reliable way to tell the difference between the two. Females have orange colorings on the bill and dark irises.
Female hooded mergansers upperparts are mainly gray-brown, with darker brown wings and a slate gray breast and brown-gray head, with red-brown irises. Their lower breast and belly are bright white.
They lack the distinctive black and white markings of the males of the species, but can be identified without too much trouble, due to their orange-red crest, which they can erect, giving them an instantly recognizable profile.
Their brownish bill distinguishes them from other merganser species (e.g. red-breasted and common mergansers), in which the females have red bills.
Close up of a swimming female Hooded Merganser
Female hooded mergansers are slightly smaller than males, measuring in the range of 40 to 46 cm (15.7 to 18.1 in), compared to males, which are between 43 and 49 cm (16.9 to 19.3 in).
Female (background), and male (foreground) pair of Hooded Mergansers
Like the males of the species, one of the most distinctive features of female hooded mergansers is their fluffy crest, which they change the positioning of according to the situation.
By raising the crest feathers, their appearance becomes more intimidating to any threatening predators they encounter.
Male hooded mergansers use their crests during courtship, with a fully upright crest used to catch the attention of the female being pursued. Displays of crest-raising, head-shaking and wing flapping are performed by a group of males for the benefit of a solo female.
Particularly notable is the ritualized ‘drinking’ in which the male (with a fully flattened crest) throws his head back, with his bill almost vertical. The female responds to her chosen mate with head bobbing or pumping.
Pair of Hooded Mergansers swimming on the water
Hooded mergansers are generally a quiet species, and it’s unusual to hear them calling outside of the breeding season.
Males are typically more vocal during courtship than females, making a frog-like croak to attract a mate. Female hooded mergansers respond with a hoarse ‘gack’ sound.
Specific to female hooded mergansers is a high, rapid ‘croo-croo-crook’ vocalization, used to call to young ducklings on the water, or as a warning call to see off predators that advance too close to a nest site.
Close up portrait of a female Hooded Merganser
Hooded mergansers are cavity nesters, and will use unattended nest boxes designed for wood ducks, as well as natural holes in trees or hollows formed by tree roots. The nest site is chosen by the female, with no assistance from the male.
Once a nesting cavity has been selected, the female alone prepares the site for laying. No additional materials are brought to the cavity, and a shallow nest bed is created from material already present in the hollow or box, finished off with downy feathers plucked from the female’s breast as laying begins.
Males play no active role in preparing the nest site or subsequent incubation of eggs and raising of young. As soon as the clutch has been laid, males depart to their non-breeding grounds, where they undergo a change of plumage, with their distinctive breeding markings temporarily replaced with an all-over muted set of feathers, similar to the brown-gray appearance of a female.
Females incubate the eggs and defend the nest site alone, and become increasingly protective of their cavity as incubation advances. Behavior includes vocal wing-flapping displays a short distance away from the nest site, which act as a distraction for any predators that may be close to discovering their eggs.
Female Hooded Merganser checking out a nesting box
From the moment incubation begins, female hooded mergansers take sole charge of brooding eggs and raising young once they hatch. The males depart for their non-breeding grounds once the nest site has been selected and the eggs have been laid.
Females leave eggs unattended only for brief periods to forage for food each day, returning to incubation duties once they have eaten. It is not unusual for females to lose up to 16 percent of their body weight during this time due to restricted feeding opportunities.
For the first 24 hours after hatching, hooded merganser ducklings are initially brooded by the female before being led to the water, where they gain foraging and diving skills relatively quickly. By around 5 weeks, they no longer rely on the female for feeding.
Hooded Merganser hen with her ducklings
Female hooded mergansers are mainly a shade of dark brownish-gray. They have a white patch extending from their lower breast to their belly. Their wingers are slightly darker than the rest of their body, with lighter slate gray faces.
The female hooded merganser’s head is topped by a bushy fan-shaped crest, which is a lighter shade of orange-brown.
Although hooded mergansers are a largely silent species, there are occasions when females can be heard calling.
During courtship, females may utter a ‘gack’ cry during displays with male suitors, and a ‘croo-croo-crook’ call may be used by mothers to summon their ducklings, or as a defense cry around their nest site.
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