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Hooded Merganser

Lophodytes cucullatus ORDER: ANSERIFORMES FAMILY: ANATIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

“Hooded” is something of an understatement for this extravagantly crested little duck. Adult males are a sight to behold, with sharp black-and-white patterns set off by chestnut flanks. Females get their own distinctive elegance from their cinnamon crest. Hooded Mergansers are fairly common on small ponds and rivers, where they dive for fish, crayfish, and other food, seizing it in their thin, serrated bills. They nest in tree cavities; the ducklings depart with a bold leap to the forest floor when only one day old.

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Keys to identification Help

Ducks
Ducks
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Hooded Mergansers are small ducks with a thin bill and a fan-shaped, collapsible crest that makes the head look oversized and oblong. In flight, the wings are thin and the tail is relatively long and rounded.

  • Color Pattern

    Adult male Hooded Mergansers are black above, with a white breast and rich chestnut flanks. The black head has a large white patch that varies in size when the crest is raised or lowered, but is always prominent. Females and immatures are gray and brown, with warm tawny-cinnamon tones on the head.

  • Behavior

    Hooded Mergansers dive to catch aquatic insects, crayfish, and small fish. Males court females by expanding their white, sail-like crests and making very low, gravelly, groaning calls. Hooded Mergansers fly distinctively, with shallow, very rapid wingbeats.

  • Habitat

    Look for Hooded Mergansers on small bodies of freshwater. In summer, these small ducks nest in holes in trees, often near freshwater ponds or rivers. For winter, they move to larger bodies of freshwater, marshes, and protected saltwater bays.

Range Map Help

Hooded Merganser Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male

    Hooded Merganser

    Adult male
    • Distinctive small merganser with unique "inflated" crest
    • Black head and neck with large white patch on crest
    • Rufous flanks contrast with darker back and white breast
    • Two black "spurs" on sides of breast
    • © Greg Schneider, November 2010
  • Adult female

    Hooded Merganser

    Adult female
    • Small merganser with distinctive rounded crest
    • Long, slender yellow bill
    • Mostly dark gray with richer brown on crest
    • Dark eyes
    • © Stuart Oikawa, Manitoba, Canada, May 2012
  • Immature male

    Hooded Merganser

    Immature male
    • Immature male similar to adult female but shows all-dark bill and yellow eyes
    • Darker wings contrast with paler gray/brown flanks and head
    • Paler brown crest
    • Long tail often sticks up at an angle
    • © Christopher L. Wood, New York
  • Adult female (left) and male (right)

    Hooded Merganser

    Adult female (left) and male (right)
    • Small, long-bodied merganser
    • Distinctive "hammer-headed" appearance
    • Long, slender, serrated bills
    • Male shows bright white patch on crest and rufous flanks
    • © Christopher L. Wood, December 2004
  • Adult female with ducklings

    Hooded Merganser

    Adult female with ducklings
    • Small, compact merganser
    • Distinctive hood-like crest
    • Long, slender, serrated bill
    • Ducklings similar to other merganser species with dark crowns and pale cheeks
    • © Stuart Oikawa, Manitoba, Canada, June 2011
  • Adult male

    Hooded Merganser

    Adult male
    • Small, long-bodied merganser
    • Unique, "hammer-head" crest with large white patch on black background
    • Glowing yellow eyes
    • Rufous flanks bordered by two black stripes on sides of breast
    • © Jay Paredes, Viera, Florida, December 2011
  • Adult female

    Hooded Merganser

    Adult female
    • Small merganser with fluffy, fan-shaped crest
    • Slender, serrated bill with orange/yellow base
    • Mostly plain gray with warmer brown on crest
    • White belly
    • © Guy Litcher, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, May 2011
  • Adult male

    Hooded Merganser

    Adult male
    • Fluffy crest hangs down back of neck when not raised
    • White patch reduced when crest is not raised
    • Glowing yellow eyes stand out on jet black head and neck
    • Two vertical black "spurs" on sides of breast
    • © Guy Litcher, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, May 2012

Similar Species

Similar Species

The white head patch of the adult male Bufflehead doesn’t have a black rear border as it does on Hooded Mergansers, and male Bufflehead have clear white sides instead of the Hooded Merganser’s chestnut flanks. Female and immature Common Mergansers and Red-breasted Mergansers are larger and longer proportioned than the smaller, more compact Hooded Merganser. Though female and immature Hooded Mergansers lack distinctive markings, their scruffy crests give them a unique shape that helps to separate them from other ducks.

Backyard Tips

If you live near the appropriate habitat for mergansers, consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. If your box does not have nest material from a previous resident, you can add wood shavings to entice a new resident. Find out more about nest boxes on our Attract Birds pages. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.

Find This Bird

Hooded Mergansers are fairly common on small ponds and streams across their breeding range. In fall through spring, head to unfrozen lakes or shallow, protected saltwater bays and look for them mixed in flocks with other small divers like Bufflehead and Ruddy Ducks. Pay attention for flying ducks too—a fast series of truncated whistles from high overhead may signal the rapid wingbeats of a commuting merganser.