Red-breasted Merganser visits during migration season

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Story and photograph by Horace Brown

The Red-breasted Merganser is fairly common during migration, uncommon in winter and rare in the summer.

They are recorded chiefly west of the Cumberland Plateau and I have seen them on Guist Creek in Shelby County in the winter. Late spring dates for a Kentucky sighting is June 22 and an early autumn date is Sept. 12.

Their breeding range is across northern and southern Canada including Alberta and all of British Columbia, all of Alaska except the peninsula and New England. They winter around the Great Lakes, both Atlantic and Pacific Coasts and Gulf Coast, and along the Mississippi River from southern Illinois south and throughout Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, east Texas on into Mexico and also east central Colorado, south central New Mexico, Lower California, Gulf of California and the west and east coast of Mexico.

The male Red-breasted Merganser in my photograph has a dark green, spiked head that is bordered by a white collar with a reddish breast and is 23 inches long with a 30-inch wingspan and weighs 2.3 pounds.

It is a diving duck like the other two species of mergansers and has small teeth inside its beak to hold slippery minnows when they are caught. This species is a swift and rather silent flyer and an exceedingly expert diver. Also, while swimming on the surface you may notice that the Red-breasted Merganser has a tendency to sometimes raise and lower its crest.

Their nest occasionally is in ground burrows or crevices and is usually within 25 feet of water. Sometimes it is built in the open, but typically it is sheltered by tall grasses, over hanging willows, spruces, firs, among tree roots or piles of driftwood.

The nest is a scooped out hole or natural hollow in the ground and profusely lined with brownish-gray down and whitish feathers with some plant material with the outside diameter being 12 to 14 inches and the inside diameter being 7 to 8 inches.

The female lays as many as 16 but more commonly eight to 10 buff or more commonly various shades of olive eggs that are unmarked and smooth shelled with very little luster. Incubation is by the female alone for 26 to 28 days with the drake being rarely seen in the vicinity of the nest with one brood being produced.

You can observe the Red-breasted Merganser on most of the larger lakes in the winter and this is also one of the 314 bird species that will go extinct if we don’t reverse climate change in the great outdoors.


To read more columns about birds by Horace Brown, visit www.SentinelNews.com/recreation. Horace Brown is a civil/sanitary engineer, land surveyor and nature photographer and writer. To contact him or order a Brown’s 2017 hawks and owls calendar, E-mail whbrownpelpls@aol.com, call 502-682-7711 or write 527 Main St., Shelbyville 40065.