Quacking at my window

Lorri Drumm

When I moved to Warren in October I was thrilled to hear quacking from my open window and head down to the creek to feed the ducks.

I’ve always been a bit of a Birdbrain.

Imagine my excitement when despite recent frigid temperatures I discovered what I thought might be a rare predominantly white duck perched near an island in Conewango Creek.

It turns out the white duck and his red-headed friend (potential mate?) are Common Mergansers. Like the name might hint, they are fairly common to our area.

The particular spot that’s attracting them has the perfect ambiance and cuisine, according to Sarah Hatfield, education coordinator at the Audubon Community Nature Center in Jamestown.

“They need the open water to feed,” Hatfield said. “They are divers, which means they dive to catch their food, which is primarily fish.”

“The ice ledges are the perfect resting spot for them and they don’t seem to mind the cold,” she said.

Then again, the white male duck doesn’t stick around the chilly creek waters all year long.

“Males hang around for a while but when they’re done breeding they leave and the females raise the chicks,” said Derek Farr, self-proclaimed Bird Dork. Once it’s “mission accomplished” the males may fly to the Pacific coast or possibly just as far as Lake Erie or Chautauqua, Farr said.

Both Hatfield and Farr referred me to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website for more details of the life of a Merganser.

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.

Here are some cool facts from the website:

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.

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 merganser.

The oldest Common Merganser on record was a female, and at least 13 years, 5 months old. She was banded in Oklahoma in 1938 and found in Wisconsin in 1950.

Common Mergansers usually nest in natural tree cavities or holes carved out by large woodpeckers. Sometimes mergansers take up residence in nest boxes, provided the entrance hole is large enough. On occasion, they use rock crevices, holes in the ground, hollow logs, old buildings, and chimneys.

If you’d like to find out more visit allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common–Merganser/overview.