If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. In this case, we are talking about the hooded merganser, a water duck that is part of the scientific family Anatidae, which are closely related to geese and swans. Uniquely characterized by their eye-catching features, it is almost impossible to miss this small, migratory bird swimming in our ponds a couple of times a year.

The male hooded merganser is striking with his jet-black face and piercing, golden eyes topped off with his glorious white crest, or hood, sitting proudly atop his head. Females also share this distinct hood-like crest, though they lack the vibrant coloring of the males in favor of a more muted rusty/cinnamon coloring.

These ducks are the second smallest of the merganser family and are migratory visitors to the state of Florida. In fact, the hooded mergansers rarely, if ever, breed within state lines. Hooded mergansers arrive in Florida in the fall, usually around late September, where they strategically spend their winters inhabiting our lakes and ponds until they leave again at the end of spring. Most of their time here is spent in small groups often observed gliding across the much warmer Florida fresh waters. Around April, they fly back to their native states, which span across North America and beyond, as they are highly adaptable and successfully distributed birds.

Hooded Mergansers have a simple diet that consists primarily of freshwater fish. They also eat crayfish and insects. The hooded mergansers hunt by diving under the surface of the water to catch their meals, relying mostly on their keen eyesight. Interestingly, these ducks have an added advantage that aids in this endeavor called a nictitating membrane (or transparent eyelid), which acts as a shield for their eyes underwater, similar to goggles. It is also helpful that they are fitted with thin but sharp, serrated bills which help them hold onto their prey.

The word ‘merganser’ is Greek-derived and literally translates to ‘diving goose,’ though they are actually ducks. Hooded mergansers are cavity-dwelling ducks and often make nests in empty trees or logs. When they are not found swimming, they are often resting in their cavity dwellings.

These interesting freshwater ducks are a sight to behold. Be sure to look for them during our winter months and see why they are one of my favorite species to spot in our ever-wild Florida.

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