Reflections in Nature: Merganser nests in chimney

On June 16, I was walking in the backyard, looking at my wife Mary Alice’s flower gardens while waiting for her to get ready for church, when I heard a strange call. As I was searching for the source, I looked up to see a merganser standing on our neighbor’s chimney.

I went to get my camera and when I returned, the bird still was there and I took three pictures.

Although I knew the bird was a merganser, I wasn’t sure which one. After returning from church, I loaded the pictures on the computer and increased their size. Down from the shelves came the bird books and I began reading descriptions and studying pictures until identifying it as a female common merganser.

I read that the female common merganser can be confused with the female red-breasted merganser; however, the common has a sharply delineated white chin.

The scientific name of the common merganser is Mergus merganser. The genus Mergus comes from Latin and means diver, with the species name merganser coming from two Latin words: mergere, meaning to dip or plunge and anser meaning a goose.

In Europe, the common merganser is known as a goosander. The common part of the name is because they are seen more than any other mergansers.

The common merganser is the largest of the mergansers found in Pennsylvania.

Mergansers usually are seen along streams and lakes and not likely perched on your neighbor’s chimney. When on water, mergansers must run along the surface for a considerable distance before becoming airborne.

In swift water, the duck has to rise downstream, since it can make no headway against the current; however, the merganser generally prefers to fly upstream if able.

Mergansers also have the ability to sink slowly into the water just as grebes do. Diving birds adjust their buoyancy by compressing their plumage before they dive. It is common to see cormorants and loons adjust their buoyancy, sometimes sinking so that their backs hardly show above the surface. There are other species of diving birds that do this as well.

The mergansers are expert divers that are able to swim rapidly both on top and under water. Their main food is fish, usually minnows, which are easier to catch. Frogs, salamanders crawfish and other aquatic life also are part of their diets.

Their streamlined bodies and long serrated bills are adaptations for underwater pursuit of fish. Mergansers have fine tooth-like serrations along the sides of their bills, which help in capturing slippery fish.

At one time, large numbers were shot because it was believed that they destroyed valuable game fish; however, today it is understood that these birds are beneficial, by preventing overpopulation of fish, which allows the survivors to attain a greater size.

The nests of common mergansers often are found in tree cavities near water. However, they do nest on the ground by building nests made of weeds under either low bushes or dense tangles of brush.

Their breeding season is during May and June. If the young are born in a tree, they leave the nest by leaping to the ground, just as the young of the wood duck.

The female usually lays nine to 12 buff white eggs. Because the eggs are hidden, there is no need for camouflage.

The male stays with the female until incubation begins and then leaves. The female incubates the eggs for 28 to 32 days.

The reason for the male’s disappearance during the summer is due to the fact that they go into an eclipse plumage at this time and become very shy and retiring.

The common merganser is one of the earliest waterfowl to come north in the spring. The typical migration occurs as soon as the ice is gone, usually during February. The mergansers are the last waterfowl to leave in the fall, and usually, their peak migration does not get underway until late November.

I now realize it wasn’t uncommon for the merganser to be sitting on our neighbor’s chimney. I have since read that mergansers will occasionally nest in a cabin’s chimney.

One accidental death occurred when a female entered a chimney in search of a nesting place and, when unable to escape, starved to death.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.