Hooded mergansers visit marsh wetlands at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge on March 10, 2014. Male mergansers court females by expanding their white crests and making a low, gravely groan. (Photo by Steve Droter/Chesapeake Bay Program)

From a distance, you might mistake it for an American black duck or a mallard. But get closer and you’ll notice a few peculiar features of this one-of-kind duck: piercing yellow eyes; a slender bill; and, occasionally, a comically oversized head.

The hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) is the smallest of the three merganser species native to North America. The merganser is a species of fish-eating diving duck that has a notably narrow bill with serrated edges and a hooked tip. The hooded merganser gets its name from the collapsible, sail-like crest on the back of its head which, when fully fanned out, gives the merganser’s head a hooded, oblong appearance.

However, the collapsible crest is more than just an eccentric party trick. During courtship, the male hooded merganser raises its crest and makes a distinctive croaking sound, signaling to females that he is actively looking for a mate.

The hooded merganser can be found throughout the Bay watershed’s freshwater ponds, streams and lakes. While it visits the Bay watershed mostly in spring and autumn, populations have been known to spend winters in the area’s tidal creeks and rivers. They play an important role in the Bay’s ecosystem, helping to control populations of aquatic insects, fish and amphibians, which they eat regularly.

While the overall population of the hooded merganser is considered to be stable, the Maryland Zoo reports that the number of hooded mergansers wintering in the Chesapeake Bay region is declining. This is likely a result of deforestation and urbanization in the area, as the merganser slowly loses access to the secluded, riverside habitat that it prefers.

One way to encourage more hooded mergansers to make their home in Chesapeake Bay is to consider building a hooded merganser nesting box. Nest box programs can create nest sites in areas that are otherwise unsuitable for the hooded merganser and are a great way to show your support of these lovable birds.

Learn more about the hooded merganser.

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