Saw Bills and Hoodies
The mergansers are the most unusual looking ducks swimming the River Raisin this season. Although technically “ducks”, they are not defined by the typically flat bills of that group. Mergansers are fish eating birds and their beaks are elongated into perfect piscine grabbers. This adaptation goes so far as to provide them with teeth. Yes, I know, birds don’t – and can’t – have true teeth (or lips for that matter) but can have tooth-like projections along the edge of the beak. They are succinctly called “saw bills” by hunters. Mergansers exhibit this trait to such perfection that their beaks look exactly like those of the spotted gar – a very toothy fish-eating fish. They are fish ducks with fish faces!
Two species of mergansers are operating in the open waters of the Raisin as well as an equivalent section on the Huron River in Flat Rock: Common and Hooded Mergansers. The smallest ones, the Hoodies, are among the flashiest of the tribe and of all waterfowl. Only the Woodies (Wood Ducks) out-do the Hoodies in this department. This is, of course, up for argument …but not here.
Both male and female birds are present and both are worthy of admiration. Female birds, typical of their sex, are subtly shaded and their heads are wonderfully topped with glorious tufts of “hair.” It is a mark of my age to compare them with Phyllis Diller but I realize this has no meaning to the Jimmy Fallon generation. Since I’ve promised myself to limit my allusions to such anachronistic things such as typewriters, dial phones, and eight track tapes I will let a frazzled paint brush serve as my un-dated metaphor. Oddly enough, paintbrushes have been around for thousands of years and are extremely anachronistic yet are still used daily.
Male Hooded Mergansers are magnificent beings. Resplendent in pin-striped maroon, black and white body décor the guys have pliable crests. Adjustable according to mood or behavior, the crest – or hood – can be laid back in the manner of wind-swept wheat or fully expressed as a full white fan. When diving, the crest is lowered to create an aerodynamic shape for underwater work (they pursue small fish like feathered seals).
Above the water surface, the crest is fanned out. When alerted to danger, or used as a courtship tool, it is opened to its full extent. One might get the impression that these guys have really large heads whenever the crest is fully hooded, but is mostly composed of air. Indeed, it might be tempting for female readers to state that this is a natural male condition but by this statement I mean to say that the bird’s head is actually very small and that the feathers are very long. They are pin-head fowl. When side-lit in the morning sun, this trait is clearly displayed.
Larger Common Mergansers are mixed in with the Hoodies. Commonly called Gooseanders , these birds are nearly twice the size of their Hooded cousins. I’ve only seen the females this winter. These birds are mostly gray backed with crested rusty heads. When resting (or possibly meditating) they depress their crest tightly in line with their head and neck profile. When actively hunting, however, this crest is opened in wild glory.
The fishing behavior of these mergansers is delightful to watch. They swim against the current and regularly dip their faces beneath the surface for a peek. While so engaged they appear like snorkelers cruising for seashells. Upon spotting their potential victim they plunge into the drink and chase their finny prey (see below & here).
Although we are fixating upon their sleek above-water appearance, the mergansers are rendered ungainly by their long legs and huge webbed feet. Their legs are located far past the mid-line of their bodies – an arrangement perfect for darting underwater. Unfortunately they are unable to walk very far on land or ice due to this hobbling arrangement.
Given the above foot and life facts, it would be easy to suspect that mergansers are 100% tied to the liquid element but that would be wrong. These birds are tree nesters, believe it or not. They nest in tree cavities. In another few months they will be heading to the northern forests to raise a new generation of sawbills in the trees.