Hooded Merganser

hooded Merganser

A male hooded merganser with his white hood in full display.

During a recent winter storm, we took a short drive along the Henry’s Fork at Mack’s Inn in Island Park. We could see lots of birds from the highway and wanted to see what we could add to Cathy’s monthly list. We saw the usual characters—mallards, wigeons, swans and Canada geese, but far out on the river was something else. With only a single pair of compact binoculars between us and lots of falling snow, we had trouble identifying it at first. Could it be a bufflehead? That was our first guess, but it didn’t seem right. Then one of the males I was looking at lifted its feathered crest on his head, revealing a huge white patch that had just been a white line moments before, and I knew—hooded merganser.

This was a great find. We have seen hooded mergansers before, but I don’t believe we have ever seen one in Eastern Idaho. The last ones we had seen were near Pend Orielle in northern Idaho several months ago.

I like mergansers. All three species that we can see in North America, common, red-breasted and hooded, are handsome birds, especially the males. However, I think I like the hooded merganser best. That might partly be because we see them less often and, as the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder, but I do love that hooded crest when the male chooses to display it.

The hooded merganser is a different genus than the other North American mergansers and on the family tree the hooded merganser sits between the goldeneyes and the other two mergansers. It shares calls and courtship behaviors of both groups.

The hooded merganser is our smallest merganser and the second smallest of the six species worldwide. The male sports a black and white “tuxedo” and chestnut sides. He also exhibits a yellow eye like the goldeneyes. His crest is not always raised to show the huge triangular white patch. Sometimes it is just a broad white line. The female, while not as impressive, sports a reddish crest and a red eye with a mostly gray body.

Like wood ducks, common goldeneyes, and the common merganser, hooded mergansers nest in tree cavities. It seems that all of these species have a share and share alike attitude, because they are all prone to laying eggs in the nests of others. That is actually a good strategy for spreading out the risk of nest failure. However, it can lead to some impressive nests. While a hooded merganser female may lay a dozen eggs of her own, nests have been found with as many as 44 eggs in them.

When the eggs hatch, the female gives the ducklings only a day before expecting them to take a leap of faith. She will stand at the bottom of the nest tree and call, and the day-old youngsters will climb to the nest entrance and jump. Nests may be high up on the trunk of a tree so this leap may be 50 feet or more. Once all are safely on the ground, she leads them to the nearest water. Day-old ducklings have been known to traipse over half a mile following mama.

Like other mergansers, hooded mergansers are fish eaters. They dive under the water and hunt by sight, using a nictitating membrane (a clear shield) over their eyes to protect them. Their narrow bill is serrated and hooked on the end, making it a formidable fish catcher.

Hooded merganser populations steeply declined over the past 50 years as habitat, specifically suitable nesting trees within walking distance of water, was destroyed. They seem to be rebounding though, likely through efforts directed at replacing lost nest sites with artificial nesting boxes.

Most of Idaho is within migration corridors for the hooded merganser, but year-round habitat is found only in North Idaho. Non-breeding range does extend to just north of Targhee Pass near West Yellowstone and may account for the birds we saw at Mack’s Inn.

One other thing about hooded mergansers—they are only found in North America—a truly native bird.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from Nature-track.com!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho