November 1, 2023

Do You Know the Sawbill?

Photos by Kevin Wright

If there were no photos with this story would you be able to identify this duck if I were to only describe it by some of its common or regionally associated names? Names like fish duck, sawbill, spikebill, sharpy, fuzzhead, frog duck and a host of others. Would you have been able to tag them as a hooded merganser? Some yes, others, like me, the answer would be a big no.

Two ducks with white, black, and rusty plumage swim next to each other on a wetland.

Many merganser sightings are of them way out on a lake and that goes for most of my sightings, that is until one day when it all changed and my love for this beautiful duck grew to gargantuan proportions.

It was late winter, and I was out photographing mink that were utilizing a small open water area which was created by a bank beaver (a beaver which has built its lodge up into the bank). I had spent three days there already with incredible success with the mink. It was on that fourth day, however, when it all changed.

Hoodies tend to migrate in smaller flocks when compared to other species of waterfowl, and on that particular day it was a small, mixed sex group of hooded mergansers that flew in. I sat just 15 yards away and that is when I witnessed the incredible beauty of these birds, both males and females.

The male hoodie has a striking white crest that typically lays flat but when in courtship display (as these guys were) or when agitated, the white crest is in full display. Its body is blackish with a whitish breast with two black stripes down the side. Females lack the white crest with theirs being a reddish brown in color. Body color is a light gray-brown. When in flight both sexes display a white wing patch.

The smallest of the mergansers (16 to 19 inches long as compared to a common merganser at 22 to 27 inches long or the red-breasted merganser at 22 to 27 inches long) to commonly occur in Illinois, they have a thin bill which has tooth-like serrations which aids in the grasping of prey as they dive for fish, crawfish, insects and small amphibians.

Four brown ducks with yellow eyes swim on a wetland.

I had the privilege of hearing the males call out during their courtship display. Small grunts and croaks came from the males while the females generally remained silent.

Hooded mergansers are a common migrant in Illinois with some spending the entire year. Some will nest in the state, but this bird is not considered a common breeder.

As far as nesting, hoodies and and wood ducks are the two most common Illinois ducks to nest in cavities, although another cavity-nester, the black-bellied whistling duck, is becoming much more common in the state. While they prefer nesting in trees, they will also use artificial nest boxes if a more suitable location is not found.

Tree nesting sites can be anywhere from 15 to 50 feet high. Hens will lay from 8 to 12 white eggs, sometimes even more. Females will incubate the eggs for 29 to 33 days with the ducklings leaving the nest by taking a deep plunge to the forest floor at just one day old.

Hooded mergansers also practice “brood parasitism” where they will lay their eggs in nests of other ducks, both their own species and others.

We all give praises to our favorite ducks but I believe there is nothing more beautiful than hooded mergansers.

Kevin Wright is an award winning outdoor writer and wildlife photographer whose work has been published in a number of publications and websites throughout the country. He lives and works out of central Illinois.

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