Bird of the Week

Photo courtesy Charles Martinez

This week’s Bird of the Week, compliments of the Weminuche Audubon Society and Audubon Rockies, is the red-breasted merganser.

Although the common merganser is a familiar duck seen in our area all year, its red-breasted cousin is only spotted infrequently, in winter and spring. They breed further north, in freshwater and saltwater wetlands of the boreal forest, than the other merganser species we see here. In winter, they are found on coastal waters and large inland lakes of the United States and Mexico. Around here, the red-breasted merganser has been reported at Navajo, Vallecito and Lake Pagosa.

The scientific name, mergus (diver) serrator (sawyer), describes two characteristics of this bird. It dives underwater to depths of up to 15 to 20 feet to catch fish and eggs, and sometimes worms, shrimp or crabs. The catch of choice is fish in the 4- to 6-inch range. To satisfy their caloric requirements, red-breasted mergansers need to eat 15-20 fish per day, spending four to five hours foraging. Several of these social birds may line up to herd minnows into shallow waters for easy picking.

“Serrator” in its name refers to its long, thin, red bill with serrated edges, useful in holding onto slippery fish and giving the name sawbill to this duck. These slim, long-bodied birds are among the fastest flying ducks. In colorful breeding plumage, the male’s shaggy, double-crested head is green and separated by a white collar from its rusty-colored breast smudged with black. Females, immatures and nonbreeding males are brown-gray and also display the double-crested head feathers.

In courtship displays, the male dunks his chest while raising his head and rear in a curtsy to the female. If you watch, you may catch male ducks on the river now doing their own dance to attract a mate.

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