Mergus mergansercommon merganser(Also: goosander;common merganser)

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Geographic Range

Mergus merganser (common mergansers or goosanders) occur in both the Nearctic and Palearctic regions. Although their abundance has been decreasing in North America, they are still the most abundant of the mergansers found there. In North America, common mergansers may breed as far north as southern Alaska and Canada. Some occur year-round in the northern and western United States. North American birds winter in New England, midwestern and southern states, and the Pacific coast of the U.S. and Canada. Common mergansers in the Palearctic region typically breed in northern Europe, Scandinavia, throughout Russia, and in much of northern Asia. Populations in Europe winter along the coasts of Scandinavia and northern Europe, as well as parts of the northern Mediterranean coast and north Africa. In Asia common mergansers winter in southern Asia, northern India, Japan, China, and Korea. (Brewer, et al., 1991; Mallory and Metz, 1998; Terres, 1980; Udvardy, 1977)

Habitat

Common mergansers prefer to live in wooded areas along streams and rivers or near small, inland lakes. They can also be found along the shores of the Great Lakes, as well as on coastal streams in British Columbia. Nests are typically in a crevice of a deciduous tree along the shore, but sometimes will be in other types of crevices or on the ground, under tangled bushes. Mergansers may also occupy abandoned hawk nests when available.

Common mergansers are diving predators who locate their prey by sight, and therefore tend to feed in clear waters, less than 4 m deep, including estuaries, coastal bays, lakes, streams, and rivers. In the winter, common mergansers have been known to dive deeper in order to capture schooling fish. (Brewer, et al., 1991; Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Terres, 1980; Udvardy, 1977)

  • Range depth
    4 (high) m
    13.12 (high) ft

Physical Description

Common mergansers are the largest mergansers and the largest North American inland ducks. Males are slightly larger, on average. Males and females are colored quite differently. Males have bright, vivid, solid areas of color with sharply defined edges; black back, dark green to black head (changes to brown in non-breeding season), serrated red bill, red feet, and white, cylindrical body with slight peach-colored tinge on breast, and fading to some grey in the tail. Male common mergansers have no visible crest. Males can be readily distinguished from male common goldeneyes, which have shorter necks, rounded bodies, more ruffled heads, and white eyes. Female common mergansers have the same red feet and bill as males, but they have a larger crest, a brown head, and the body is a less sharply defined mixture of grey and white, fading to white in the breast. The line between the brown neck and white breast is sharply defined, which distinguishes female common mergansers from similar female red-breasted mergansers.

Adults have an average basal metabolic rate of 638 kJ/d. Field metabolic rates, studied in autumn in Scotland, were found to be higher in females than males, with an overall average of 2.32 ml CO2/h. (Mallory and Metz, 1998; Terres, 1980; Udvardy, 1977)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • Range mass
    1050 to 2054 g
    37.00 to 72.39 oz
  • Range length
    53 to 69 cm
    20.87 to 27.17 in
  • Range wingspan
    86 to 99 cm
    33.86 to 38.98 in

Reproduction

Common mergansers form monogamous mating pairs that last for at least one mating season. The duration of these loyalties is unknown, but pairs reunite over years in other duck species. Pairs are formed in late winter, when a male circles a female and displays the Courtship-Intent Posture, with neck stretched forward and head feathers erect. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Mallory and Metz, 1998)

Common mergansers breed once per year, in the summer. A clutch typically contains 9 to 12 eggs, which are laid between May and June. Eggs are approximately 64 mm in length and have a pale yellow, ivory, or white buff appearance. Upon hatching, young birds follow their mothers to feeding sites. Often the mother will lead the brood to larger bodies of water downstream to feed. Young can swim and feed easily as soon as they leave the nest, although for the first few days most food is obtained on the surface. Within about 8 days, the young are skillful divers. Mothers abandon their broods before the young develop the ability to fly, typically 30 to 50 days after hatching. Young mergansers commonly join other broods after being abandoned; mixed broods of more than 40 young have been observed. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Mallory and Metz, 1998; Terres, 1980; Udvardy, 1977)

  • Breeding interval
    Common mergansers breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs from May to June each year.
  • Range eggs per season
    6 to 17
  • Average eggs per season
    8-12
  • Average eggs per season
    10
    AnAge
  • Range time to hatching
    28 to 35 days
  • Range fledging age
    60 to 85 days
  • Average time to independence
    30-50 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 (low) years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 (low) years

Male parents typically leave the breeding grounds when incubation begins, and female parents incubate the eggs for 28 to 35 days. Young are precocial, and leave the nest within 24 to 48 hours. When the nest is in a tree cavity, this departure is accomplished by jumping to the ground. For the next few weeks, females can be seen leading their chicks to feeding sites as far away as 8 km, although once they arrive there, the young are responsible for finding their own food. The mother may give warnings of potential dangers, to which the young are quite responsive, but otherwise the young are fairly independent at the feeding site. They are skilled divers within 8 days of leaving the nest, until then they dabble on the surface to find food. Mothers abandon their offspring before the young birds develop the ability to fly. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Mallory and Metz, 1998; Terres, 1980)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • protecting
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

The record for the oldest common merganser is held at 13 years 5 months, but banding records indicate maximum longevities of approximately 12 years 6 months for males and 13 years 10 months for females. (Mallory and Metz, 1998)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    13.8 (high) years
  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    13.4 (high) years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    161 months
    Bird Banding Laboratory

Behavior

Mergus merganser is a social species, preferring to be in groups of up to 75 individuals. Nest sites are usually isolated, but females sometimes nest in close proximity or even in the same tree. Broods often intermix, producing mixed broods of up to 40 or more young, tended by one or more adult females. In the winter, huge gatherings of hundreds of individuals have been observed. Birds in flocks tend to maintain regular spacing in flight, but on the water large groups will distribute irregularly, with pairs remaining close. (Mallory and Metz, 1998)

Common mergansers fly individually, in pairs, or in small flocks. They typically fly at about 70 km/h, and hold the head, body, and legs in one horizontal line. Females easily maneuver between trees in search of nesting sites, but flight is typically either low and along waterways or high and directional. (Mallory and Metz, 1998)

Common mergansers swim along the surface of clear shallow waters, paddling alternately, with their heads submerged in order to see their prey. Their dive is preceded by a slight leap. When diving, Mergus merganser individuals use only their feet for propulsion, paddling in unison. In larger groups, one individual may lead others by initiating a group dive, but in small groups individuals tend to dive independently. Common mergansers are capable of remaining underwater for up to 2 minutes, but maximum recorded dive times are 52 seconds in 2 to 3 m water and 37 seconds in 18 to 37 m water, with the typical dive lasting less than 30 seconds. (Mallory and Metz, 1998)

Home Range

Nesting sites are usually separated from one another, but common mergansers have also been known to nest in close proximity in some cases, with up to 10 females nesting in a single tree. Territorial behavior is minimal, with males occasionally defending favorite loafing sites near the nest. Mergus merganser individuals feed over a large range, seeking medium to large bodies of clear water. Females will lead young up to 8 km downstream in order to feed in larger bodies of water. (Mallory and Metz, 1998)

Communication and Perception

Common mergansers use their keen eyesight to locate prey underwater while swimming on the surface, but can also revert to probing underwater crevices when the water is cloudy. Males are typically only vocal during courtship, and have several calls, including hoarse croaking sounds and a twang somewhat like a guitar string. Females are also predominantly silent, vocalizing only in courtship or as a warning of danger. The females have a harsh karr, karr call. Aerial chases, in which 2 or more birds dive from flight into the water with a particular body posture to produce an audible hollow sound, have been reported, but their purpose is unknown. (Brewer, et al., 1991; Mallory and Metz, 1998; Pough, 1951; Terres, 1980; Udvardy, 1977)

Food Habits

Common mergansers are skilled diving predators, eating mainly slower small fish. Their serrated bills are well suited for capturing small fish and other aquatic prey. Clear water is preferred for feeding because the birds hunt primarily by sight. When fish are scarce (usually in spring), mergansers will substitute other small aquatic prey such as insects, frogs, and snails. They have been known to eat aquatic plants in some instances, and to feed on trout from freshwater streams when nearby ponds and lakes freeze. These birds feed most actively in the early morning after dawn, in the afternoon, and before sunset. (Brewer, et al., 1991; Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Mallory and Metz, 1998; Pough, 1951; Terres, 1980; Udvardy, 1977)

  • Animal Foods
  • amphibians
  • fish
  • insects
  • mollusks
  • aquatic or marine worms

Predation

Common mergansers are generally considered to be top predators in aquatic food chains. Predation rates are very low, and their offspring survival rate is good, largely because Mergus merganser typically nests far enough north that most common nest predators are not a threat. The nest predators that live far enough north to potentially be a threat to Mergus merganser include red squirrels, American martens, northern flickers, and black bears. Large predatory fish such as northern pike, along with predatory birds such as bald and golden eagles, common loons, and some owls and hawks, may prey on more vulnerable, immature mergansers. However, no predators of common mergansers have been documented. (Mallory and Metz, 1998)

Ecosystem Roles

Mergus merganser is considered a keystone predator, acting to control the populations of many inland fish such as perch and bass. By thinning these populations, it is thought that mergansers keep lakes and ponds below their carrying capacity. This allows those fish that survive to thrive and grow, whereas in lakes and ponds lacking the merganser predation, fish are often too prolific and bring about their own growth stagnation. Thus, wilderness lakes where mergansers feed generally produce larger, healthier fish than lakes without predation, where no individual fish grow very well because of overcrowding.

Brood parasitism, or egg-dumping, is fairly common between individual common mergansers, as well as between Mergus merganser and other related species. Common mergansers have been known to parasitize and be parasitized by both common goldeneyes and hooded mergansers. This has been shown to lead to mixed clutches of up to 19 eggs. (Mallory and Metz, 1998; Pough, 1951)

Species Used as Host
Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Fish that have to compete in overpopulated lakes and ponds often do not grow very large. By thinning fish populations in lakes and ponds, common mergansers allow the remaining fish to thrive, because they have less competition for the habitat's limited resources. Thus, more fish reach legal size for fishermen, who benefit indirectly from this form of population control provided by the mergansers. Common mergansers are also attractive birds that attract ecotourism attention. (Pough, 1951; Terres, 1980)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Common mergansers have no known negative effects on humans.

Conservation Status

Common mergansers remain common in both the Palearctic and Nearctic regions, and are not thought to be threatened at this time.

The limiting factor on Mergus merganser populations seems to be nesting site availability. Thus, urbanization and human civilization are thought to be the causes for common mergansers moving breeding sites farther south in the southeastern United States (recorded as far south as Virginia in the last 50 years) as former habitats are destroyed due to human development. However, nest boxes installed by humans have provided additional suitable nesting sites in some areas.

Although North American populations seem to have declined somewhat over the last 200 years, they remain large and may now be increasing. In Europe, deforestation is thought to be a cause of some breeding range reduction, but populations continue to thrive and grow throughout Eurasia, especially in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. (Brewer, et al., 1991; Mallory and Metz, 1998)

Contributors

Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Russell Becker (author), Kalamazoo College, Ann Fraser (editor, instructor), Kalamazoo College.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Palearctic

living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

arboreal

Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

brackish water

areas with salty water, usually in coastal marshes and estuaries.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

coastal

the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.

crepuscular

active at dawn and dusk

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
ecotourism

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

estuarine

an area where a freshwater river meets the ocean and tidal influences result in fluctuations in salinity.

food

A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

freshwater

mainly lives in water that is not salty.

holarctic

a distribution that more or less circles the Arctic, so occurring in both the Nearctic and Palearctic biogeographic regions.

World Map

Found in northern North America and northern Europe or Asia.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

keystone species

a species whose presence or absence strongly affects populations of other species in that area such that the extirpation of the keystone species in an area will result in the ultimate extirpation of many more species in that area (Example: sea otter).

macroalgae

seaweed. Algae that are large and photosynthetic.

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

mountains

This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

natatorial

specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oriental

found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

piscivore

an animal that mainly eats fish

riparian

Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

visual

uses sight to communicate

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born

References

Brewer, R., G. McPeek, R. Adams. 1991. The Atlas of Breeding Birds of Michigan. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.

Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Inc.

Mallory, M., K. Metz. 1998. Common Merganser. Pp. 1-28 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 12:442, First Edition. Philadelphia, PA: The Birds of North America, Inc.

Pough, R. 1951. Audubon Water Bird Guide. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Terres, J. 1980. Merganser, common. Pp. 195, 210-211 in The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds, Vol. 1, First Edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Udvardy, M. 1977. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.