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Common Merganser

Mergus merganser ORDER: ANSERIFORMES FAMILY: ANATIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Common Mergansers are streamlined ducks that float gracefully down small rivers or shallow shorelines. The males are striking with clean white bodies, dark green heads, and a slender, serrated red bill. The elegant gray-bodied females have rich, cinnamon heads with a short crest. In summer, look for them leading ducklings from eddy to eddy along streams or standing on a flat rock in the middle of the current. These large ducks nest in hollow trees; in winter they form flocks on larger bodies of water.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
21.3–28 in
54–71 cm
Wingspan
33.9 in
86 cm
Weight
31.7–76.2 oz
900–2160 g
Relative Size
Smaller than a Canada Goose; slightly larger than a Mallard.
Other Names
  • Goosander
  • Grand Harle, Mergo mayor (French)

Cool Facts

  • Young Common Mergansers leave their nest hole within a day or so of hatching. The flightless chicks leap from the nest entrance and tumble to the forest floor. The mother protects the chicks, but they catch all of their own food. They start by diving for aquatic insects and switch over to fish at about 12 days old.
  • Common Mergansers are sometimes called sawbills, fish ducks, or goosanders. The word “merganser” comes from the Latin and roughly translates to “plunging goose”—a good name for this very large and often submerged duck.
  • Common Mergansers usually nest in natural tree cavities or holes carved out by large woodpeckers. Sometimes mergansers take up residence in next boxes, provided the entrance hole is large enough. On occasion they use rock crevices, holes in the ground, hollow logs, old buildings, and chimneys.
  • You may see gulls trailing flocks of foraging Common Mergansers. They wait for the ducks to come to the surface and then try to steal their prey rather than fishing on their own. Occasionally even a Bald Eagle will try to steal a fish from a merganser.
  • The oldest Common Merganser on record was at least 13 years, 5 months old.

Habitat


Lake/Pond

Common Mergansers spend the breeding season in northern forested habitats near large lakes and rivers. Since they nest in cavities of large trees, breeding Common Mergansers are usually found in mature forests. They spend winters on large lakes, rivers, and reservoirs in the southern and coastal regions of their breeding range, and in additional wintering grounds across the northern and western United States. They tend to prefer freshwater wintering habitat over saltwater, but they may winter in coastal bays, estuaries, and harbors.

Food


Fish

Common Mergansers mostly eat fish, but they also eat aquatic invertebrates (including insects, mollusks, crustaceans, and worms), frogs, small mammals, birds, and plants. They forage in clear aquatic habitats such as streams, rivers, lakes, coastal bays, and estuaries. While they mainly hunt in waters less than about 13 feet deep, in the winter they sometimes venture into deeper waters where fish are schooling. They find their prey by sight, often probing sediments and underwater stones with their slender bills, which have sharp serrations for grasping slippery prey. Their diet is heaviest in fish during the winter, and includes salmon, trout, suckers, sculpin, shad, sunfish, sticklebacks, chub, minnows, and eels. During the breeding season they supplement their fish diet with caddisflies, mayflies, backswimmers, flies, water striders, dragonflies, crane flies, beetles, caterpillars, freshwater sponges, spiders, snails, mussels, and other invertebrates. Nestlings eat mostly aquatic invertebrates, switching to fish at about 12 days old.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
6–17 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
2.4–2.8 in
6–7.2 cm
Egg Width
1.7–2 in
4.3–5 cm
Incubation Period
28–35 days
Nestling Period
1–2 days
Egg Description
White, creamy, or ivory yellow.
Condition at Hatching
Well-developed, with open gray-brown eyes, and covered with white, brown, tawny, and reddish down feathers.
Nest Description

The female shapes a nest bowl in the materials that have accumulated at the bottom of the nest cavity (such as wood chips and shavings or old squirrel nests), and may also add grasses. After laying eggs she lines the nest with downy feathers plucked from her own breast.

Nest Placement

Cavity

The female chooses the nest site, which is usually in a natural cavity or woodpecker hole in a live or dead tree, up to 100 feet off the ground and within a mile of water. Common Mergansers nest less frequently in rock crevices, old sheds, chimneys, lighthouses, holes in banks, holes in the ground, hollow logs, and burrows. They readily nest in boxes, including those designed for the much smaller Common Goldeneye. Sometimes they nest on the ground.

Behavior


Surface Dive

Common Mergansers spend much of their time afloat, loafing, fishing, and often sleeping on open water. They may form flocks of up to 75 individuals. They often swim in small groups along the shoreline, dipping their heads underwater to search for prey and then diving with a slight leap. Often when one bird dives in a large group, the others follow the leader and disappear. They can stay under for up to 2 minutes, but they normally dive for less than 30 seconds. Males chase each other during communal courtship displays, sometimes bumping or striking each other. Females sometimes lay their eggs in other ducks’ nests, including other Common Mergansers as well as Hooded Mergansers or Common Goldeneyes. The male usually abandons the nest during incubation, and the female cares for the ducklings on her own. She escorts them from the small streams and ponds near the nest site to larger lakes, rivers, and bays downstream. After leaving the nest, the young are in danger from hawks, owls, Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, Common Loons, and even fish such as northern pike, but they can escape from predators by running on the surface of the water or skulking under banks. Broods often join together in groups of multiple females with 40 or more young.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

The Common Merganser population in North America has been stable over the last half-century, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, except for a persistent declining trend evident in Manitoba, Canada. Pesticides, toxic metals, and acid rain can degrade the habitat of Common Mergansers, thin their eggshells, and reduce their prey. Being at the top of the aquatic food chain, this species is particularly susceptible to such effects, and people sometimes use Common Mergansers as an indicator of environmental health. Though they are not prized as a game bird, some Common Mergansers are shot every year either for sport or by mistake (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates some 35,000 Common and Red-breasted Mergansers are shot by hunters annually). At times they have been targeted for eradication because they were thought to threaten salmon and trout stocks.

Credits

Range Map Help

Common Merganser Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Short-distance to medium-distance migrant. All North American populations migrate, with coastal birds usually moving shorter distances and interior birds moving farther. Common Mergansers are often the last waterfowl migrant to move south in the fall and the first to return north in the spring.

Backyard Tips

In northern forests Common Mergansers will take up residence in nest boxes near lakes or rivers, as long as the boxes are large with a large opening. You can find construction plans for appropriately sized nest boxes at our NestWatch site.

Find This Bird

Common Mergansers are numerous in summer along rivers in northern North America, and many a canoe trip will turn them up without much trouble. Look for them sitting on rocks in midstream, disappearing around the next bend, or flying along the river, when their white wing patches and heavy bodies make them easy to identify. In winter, seek Common Mergansers on large rivers and lakes; look for them in large flocks mixed with other ducks such as Common Goldeneye and Bufflehead. Look for the sharp dark-and-white contrast of the snazzy males and the crisply defined, rusty heads of females.