Red-Breasted Merganser

by Alex Forsythe

The male Red-breasted Merganser is distinctive for having what appears to be a perpetual “bad hair day”, red eyes, and a narrow, serrated bill. The female’s bill is more dully colored, but she too suffers from a perpetual “bad hair day” with head and neck feathers jutting out in a manner that looks like she rode in a car with her head sticking out of the window.

It is believed that they form pairs in winter and migrate as a pair or in small groups (Sea Duck Information Series by Sea Duck Joint Venture). However, you can see huge, almost uncountable groups if you choose the right location and date to go birding. Lake Erie around Thanksgiving is a good bet.

Ohio naturalist Jim McCormac is one of my mentors and idols not only because of his vast knowledge of all things flora and fauna, but also because of his breathtaking photography. If you’re looking for a bird, he can tell you where and when to find it, the entire life history of that species, and show you the beautiful photos he’s taken of those birds. According to Mr. McCormac, flocks of Red-breasted Mergansers numbering in the thousands can be seen on Lake Erie, yet despite their large numbers, they remain “one of the least understood species of waterfowl in North America” ( Click on the link to see his photos of Mergansers. The flocks are so large, it’s easy to see why he calls them “swarms”! Even so, he says the size of the flocks seems to have declined: “I remember on many occasions seeing passing swarms of mergansers that were so massive and so dense that the flocks looked all the world like storm clouds scudding rapidly low over the water. Trying to estimate their numbers was practically an exercise in futility; certainly falling more into the ‘guesstimate’ than estimate category.”

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “there is little significant information on Red-breasted Merganser population trends and numbers.” A Sea Duck Joint Venture report in June of 2015 indicated that the populations are difficult to track, partly because “most aerial surveys do not differentiate between Red-breasted and Common Mergansers, and because large portions of their range are not surveyed.” The combined population of all three merganser species (Red-breasted, Common and Hooded) is estimated to be 400,000. It is believed that roughly 250,000 of those mergansers are Red-breasted.

I took this photo of a solitary male on a quiet waterway in Wabash County. It was certainly a very different setting from the “swarm” of mergansers surrounding Mr. McCormac on Lake Erie!


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