Brooklyn Bird Watch: Red-breasted Merganser

The Red-Breasted Merganser is a diving duck with what’s called a “saw bill.” The Merganser's scientific name literally means “diving saw.” Its serrated beak is used to keep hold of slippery fish.

As the Cornell Lab of Ornithology points out, “Males are decked out with a dark green shaggy head, a red bill and red eye, and rusty chest. Females lack the males’ bright colors, but also don the same messy do.”

This duck is definitely famous for what the American Bird Conservancy called “a shaggy-looking double crest, which reminds some of a bad case of “bed head.” One reason for the constant bad hair, or perhaps one should say, bad fathers, could be due to the Merganser's foraging habits.

Red-breasted Mergansers need to eat 15 to 20 fish per day, which researchers say means they need to dive underwater 250 to 300 times per day, or forage for 4 to 5 hours to meet their energy needs. It’s no wonder their head feathers look like spiked hair. 

Ornithologists have observed an interesting parasitic behavior practiced by the Red-breasted Merganser females, and believe it is a survival technique for the species. The females share nesting sites, that is, they nest in the same areas together and a female will place some of her eggs in the nest of other females so that if her nest is raided by a predator, some of her brood still has a chance to survive with another female. As the American Bird Conservancy puts it, “they don’t put all their eggs in one basket.”

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It is well known that the Peregrine Falcon glides down toward its prey at a cool 200 mph and is the fastest bird in the world, but the Red-Breasted Merganser is no slouch when it comes to speed. It comes in as the 8th fastest bird in the world at 81 mph, with one caveat though, it needs a running start to get airborne.

With its colorful plumage and easily recognizable head of messy feathers, one most likely won’t need expensive telescopic equipment to get a good look at a migrating Red-breasted Merganser, especially during a visit to Brooklyn Bridge Park during migration season.


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