Meet the 'snappy looking' common merganser

Female common mergansers, like the one picture, are hard to distinguish from their red-breasted relatives. Tell them apart by the clear break between the reddish head and the light colored body.

The common merganser is a large — 23 inches long with a 33-inch wingspan — diving duck that prefers mainly freshwater habitats. It’s perfectly suited for its home, complete with feet designed for diving and a bill perfect for catching its favorite foods.

If you were designing a duck for diving, where would you put the power drive for the tires, a.k.a. the webbed feet? Toward the rear. These ducks have legs further back on the body, which not only makes for a splashy take off and landing, it also helps them move efficiently through the water when submerged.

Their thin, elongated bill, with a serrated and hooked tip helps catch what type of food? It grips slippery prey, such as small fish, insect larvae, mollusks, crustaceans, worms, plants and even small mammals and birds. The common merganser swims low in the water and dips its head underwater to visually locate prey.

Pa — the male — is a good looking gent, a snappy dresser in breeding togs of a bright white body, black back, grayer rump and bright red legs and feet. He sports a slicked back hair-do. The black head and neck feature an iridescent green gloss.

Ma has a slate-gray body, a white belly and flanks. Her head and neck are a cinnamon brown with a clear color change. She has a trailing rakish crest. The white chin patch distinguishes her from the female red-breasted merganser, which is another species also found in local waters. The kids take after mom all 6 to 14 of them.

These chicks are fearless; they make a kamikaze leap to the ground from their nest up in mature tree cavities several days after hatching. They have to wrestle up their own grub of aquatic insects and later fish. Mom stays around to protect them. Common mergansers are such successful fisher folk that gulls and bald eagles, the real bird rustlers, hang around and steal from the mergansers.

• Patricia Wherry is the education chairperson for the Juneau Audubon Society. Contact her at education@juneau_audubon_society.org.

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