Hooded Merganser



For a view of a somewhat peculiar duck, look no further than the hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus).

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

For a view of a somewhat peculiar duck, look no further than the hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus). This is the smallest native merganser in North America, but also the one with the largest crest. Its narrow, serrated bill appears rather unducklike.

The male is a striking fellow, largely black above, white below, and rusty brown in the middle. He has two black bars separating the white breast from the reddish flanks, but probably his most distinctive characteristic is his black head marked by a white patch that can be raised into an eye-catching crest. He also has bright yellow eyes. In flight, notice the large white wing patch crossed by a horizontal black bar, as well as his small, drooping head, which gives him a somewhat humped appearance.

Females and immature males are dark gray overall, darker above than below. Besides their pencil-thin bills, their only other noteworthy feature is a disheveled brownish crest that looks a little bit like a fashion statement. In flight, however, this crest may not be noticeable. The only features that will stand out are the general contrast between top and bottom, plus a white wing patch broken by a black bar.

Best Field Marks

Hooded Merganser
  • Long, thin, dark bill.
  • White wing patch crossed by black bar.
  • Black head with white patch on crest of male.
  • White breast bordered by two black bars on male.
  • Reddish-brown flanks on male.
  • Small, disheveled brownish crest on female.


Hooded mergansers are generally silent, although they occasionally talk to each other in grunts and hoarse croaks. The male becomes more vocal during the breeding season, impressing his mate with a frog-like noise sometimes written as crrrroooo. He can also make a strange, hollow popping sound.

Distribution & Occurrence

Hooded Merganser

The hooded merganser can be found nearly anywhere in Kansas that quiet, shallow waters near woods are handy. However, it is uncommon in the eastern two-thirds of the state, and rare further west. It generally arrives in October, persists through the winter, and departs in March.

But a few lucky birders have found nesting hooded mergansers in summer, making this the only merganser species to breed in Kansas. Most records of breeding hooded mergansers in this state have come from the wooded eastern wetlands of Marais des Cygnes and Neosho Wildlife Area. It has also been found along the Missouri River in Atchison County, as well as Quivira Wildlife Refuge.


The hooded merganser is usually found either alone or in small groups, although it will collect in larger flocks in the winter as the water freezes over. These small groups often consist of both males and females and are swift and silent in flight, veering rapidly with an athleticism its larger counterparts lack. Hooded mergansers will come in for a landing with a rush, then swim around observing the area before settling in.

Although this duck is painfully awkward on land, it is a buoyant swimmer. It dives for its food, using both wings and feet to swim underwater. The vast majority of its diet is animals, particularly fish, although it will take frogs, crustaceans, and insects. The small fraction of its meal that consists of plant material is believed to be taken by accident.

The courting behavior of this species is impressive. During the winter, males will approach their mates with dramatic flourishing of their lifted crests. They are monogamous and often remain together for a time after mating, although the female performs all the work of nesting, brooding, and raising the young. Male hooded mergansers may also select red-breasted mergansers, common goldeneyes, buffleheads, gadwalls, and wood ducks as mates.

The female hooded merganser selects a tree cavity in a forested wetland for her nest. This cavity is about 15 feet, give or take, from the ground. She lines it with grass, leaves, down, and wood chips before laying anywhere between 6 and 18 white eggs. (A few hooded mergansers will save themselves some trouble, however, and add their eggs to an existing nest.)

Once the eggs are laid, the male departs, and the incubation period begins. This lasts 26 to 41 days, and is clearly taxing to the female, as she may lose as much as 16% of her bodyweight. She uses a broken wing display to distract predators when necessary.

The young leave the nest within 24 hours of hatching. Although their mother protects them, they are otherwise independent and forage for their own food. They are able to fly in about 71 days.


Hooded Merganser

Due to their cavity-nesting instinct, hooded mergansers can actually be attracted under the right conditions. Preserving dead trees near wetlands and other shallow bodies of water is an excellent start. You can also put up nesting boxes built for wood ducks. Just be sure to install metal predator guards and clean out the boxes annually.

Most hunters avoid hooded mergansers as they have a reputation for a less-than-pleasant flavor. However, they do decoy readily and are likely to turn up even when other game is being sought.

Similar Species

Male Bufflehead
A striking white crest on an otherwise dark head is a trait shared by male buffleheads and male hooded mergansers. However, this is about where the similarities between the two species end. The bufflehead is a chubby duck with a thick bill, while the hooded merganser is comparatively slim with a very thin bill. The former displays stark white sides, while the latter’s are dark. Even the crests are slightly different in pattern. The bufflehead’s white patch wraps all the way around the back of its head. In contrast, the hooded merganser’s white patch is bordered with black, making the back of its head dark.

Male Wood Duck
Telling hooded mergansers apart from wood ducks is generally quite easy and is only likely to present a challenge in flight, particularly in bad lighting. Although they are both crested ducks, the wood duck is a dabbling duck, and presents the classic thickset silhouette of such species, quite unlike the sleek build of the merganser. Also note the pencil-thin bill of the hooded merganser.

Female Mergansers
Female mergansers can be quite difficult to tell apart. The good news is that hooded mergansers can be found in the company of their mates throughout much of the year, providing a shortcut to identification. If you want to verify the species, however, there are a few subtle field marks to watch for. The hooded merganser is the smallest and darkest of the three species. It has a dark bill and a dark throat. Female common and red-breasted mergansers, in comparison, have more reddish bills and somewhat lighter throats, along with more reddish heads.

Helpful Resource

Hooded Merganser
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.

Complete Series

Ducks of Kansas

Ducks of Kansas