The Hooded Merganser

Every spring, as the ice starts to break up, flocks of migratory waterfowl gather in the small ponds that slowly open up the ice flow on our lake. The first cracks often appear near bridges and creeks, and that's where the waterfowl gather, exhausted after often flying several thousands of kilometers. Gradually these ponds grow larger, eventually returning to us the lake that we lost to winter. One species in particular, is dear to my heart: the Hooded Merganser, or Hooded for short. First described by Linnaeus in 1758, it is not classified as a merganser, but as the only extant species of Lophodytes. Its male is perhaps the most beautiful duck in all of North America, with its white on black crest after which it was named, its serrated beak and bronzed pectorals. A sexually dimorphic species, the female looks rather drab by comparison. Her priority is, after all, not to dress to impress, but to brood on her small clutch of eggs undetectably.

Back in the eighties, my father kept Hooded Mergansers in a small pond behind the house. He was one of the few people in Europe that knew their secret to breeding: their insectivore diet. Unlike regular ducklings, Hoodeds do not enjoy starter feed. In fact, they refuse anything strictly vegetarian, and anything not alive. After much trial and error, and many a dead duckling, we settled on a rather more wiggly food source: mealworms. The duckling mortality rate dropped to zero almost immediately. From then on, I found mason jars full of worms and stale bread wiggling all around the house. Sometimes a mealworm would escape, only to metamorphose into a small black beetle, which often needed forceful persuasion to enjoy the outdoors instead. Few people know that ducklings, when separated from their mother, should never be kept in water. This is because they almost immediately sink and die of exposure. There is a very good reason for this: the oil glands on the bottom of their tail are not yet functional, and the mother duck uses her glands instead to rub the ducklings in oil, thereby making their feathers completely waterproof. There is, however, one exception: Hooded hatchlings seem not overly concerned about drowning, and swim gallantly right after hatching. No prodding around in a small bowl of water for them: Like humans, they much prefer a bath tub. Happiest when allowed to dive around for food, we would fill our bathtub with luke-warm water, put in a half dozen ducklings, and sprinkle some mealworms as a topping for good measure. The ducklings would splash to their hearts content and dive until wet, at which point we rescued them, placing them under the comfort of an infrared lamp to dry.

It was much to my delight then, after moving continents to this very special part of the natural world, to be welcomed by Hoodeds in the pond right behind my house on Loughborough Lake. While they stay here all summer, spring is when the males proudly display. Their mating ritual involves a strange purring sound, almost like a cat, while they whip up their breast and crest to impress the female. It is not entirely clear why they are so desperate to attract attention of the other sex, since male and female are inseparable their entire lives. Indeed, Hoodeds are often spotted in pairs, and are rarely found in large flocks. Shy birds, any sign of danger will lead them to take wing. Fast fliers, they speed to a covered area, often a swamp, where they make their nest in a hollow tree stump. While these swamps are often maligned for their mosquito population, we need to recognize that they very much are what keeps this lake alive: Filtering the water and serving as nurseries for most species of insect, fish, bird and mammal found on this very lake.

The ducklings hatch after about 5 weeks of brooding. As a precocial species, they jump in the water within 24 hours to start feeding on aquatic insect larvae, such as mosquito, that are so plentiful in these locales. Both adults and ducklings stay in the swamps for most of the summer: You are indeed more likely to catch one flying over a beaver pond in South Frontenac Park then on our lake in mid-summer. After fattening up on crawfish, the ducklings grow adult feathers and practice taking wing, eventually joining their parents on a trip to overwinter in the wetlands of the Southern United States. Unlike other birds, they do not fly the distance in one go. Instead, they like to follow unfrozen waterways lurking with danger. For it is here that duck hunters lie in wait, shooting and killing reportedly one hundred thousand of these beautiful birds every year. While there were times this species was in severe decline, recently, their numbers have somewhat bounced back. For them to thrive, it is important for us to consider not paving over those mosquito-laden bogs with gravel roadways. It is important to not uproot those dead tree stumps rotting on the water's edge. And it is important not to develop your lawn near wetlands, as this fills them with pesticides and lawn fertilizer runoff that kills these crucial nurseries. Only by respecting the existing natural habitat will our children and grandchildren continue to be able to enjoy the cottage and its natural wonders, including the Hooded, our most beautiful crawfisher.