Bird Lore: Red-breasted Merganser

Photo by LeRoy VanHee
Photo by LeRoy VanHee

The Red-breasted Merganser is a sea duck, meaning it prefers the salt water environment. In Washington it is a common winter resident of the near-shore marine waters. (Any male duck is called a drake and a female is a hen.) This photo is of a hen. We see many more Red-breasted Merganser hens along the Edmonds waterfront than we see drakes. There are also first-winter males whose plumage looks very similar to that of the hens. The bird’s common name comes from the red breast of the adult drake.

When compared to the larger Common Merganser, which is more typically seen on fresh water, the Red-breasted Merganser has been described by bird expert Pete Dunne as bringing to mind “a lithe, casual, unkempt teen.” This bird’s crest is sparse and does look somewhat unkempt as it blows freely in the wind. This merganser feeds both by diving and by lowering its head just below the surface as it swims along in shallow water. It runs along the surface of the water at it takes flight.

The Red-breasted Merganser nests near fresh water or calm coastal salt water. Its nesting region includes most of the Great Lakes, Canada north through its Arctic regions and boreal forests, as well as Alaska. It begins its migration to its nesting grounds in late February and the last birds head north by early June. They will begin to return to their wintering grounds in late September. The population of this species is in decline for reasons not yet understood.

Carol Riddell, author of our new “Bird Lore” feature, manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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