Inside the Outdoors: Ducks, like bucks, take mating seriously

Survival in the animal kingdom is—at its most basic level—a matter of who is the predator and who is the prey. Very few wild creatures die of what humans have come to think of as “natural causes.” But of course, for a wild creature to be captured and eaten—unpleasant as we might find it—is, in fact, to die of natural causes; Nature’s causes.

In the big picture, however, survival is more about which individuals will breed and pass on their genes, thus passing on their fitness to survive and thrive to the next generation. For many creatures, the process by which this is sorted out is competitive, sometimes even violent; mating competitiveness, even mating violence.

The mating combat most familiar to Minnesotans is certainly that of whitetail deer. Hook-and-bullet TV and YouTube videos show bucks jousting, sharp-tined antlers crashing, as one buck tries to prove dominance over another. To the victor will go the right to breed with local does. Most confrontations end with little if any bloodshed, and a clear winner. But there are mishaps. Bucks have died with their antlers locked together, unable to free themselves; the ultimate nuptial commitment, you might say.

Whitetail deer aren’t the only wild creatures that take mating seriously enough to do battle for it. Combat happens even in the songbird world. Who, in spring, hasn’t seen a “cock robin” rush and buffet and launch its body at another male robin that has invaded its territory? Or in classic wildlife films, you can watch bighorn rams charge one another, crashing heads and horns violently as one ram attempts to drive off the other.

Males of waterfowl species exhibit this territorial behavior, too. Several days ago I was a spectator to a skirmish that involved a trio of hooded mergansers, taking place on what was then a narrow band of open water just down the hill from the family cabin.

Mergansers—both the hooded variety and the larger mallard-size American merganser—are among the last ducks to migrate southward in the fall. The small fish, snails and other aquatic life that make up their diet are more abundant in larger lakes than in small wetlands. These waters remain free of ice later in the fall, thus the “last train” timing of the mergansers’ departure. Then, when even a sliver of open water appears on northern lakes in spring, they’ll be there, too.

Mergansers are unflatteringly called “fish ducks” by hunters. Unlike the broad, flat bills of many ducks, mergansers have a narrow bill with serrated edges that function like teeth for capturing prey. Their diet of critters that swim and crawl gives them a stronger taste than mallards, teal and other ducks that feed primarily on aquatic plants, or on waste grain in harvested fields. Though it might seem odd for birds much larger than most woodpeckers, both of these merganser species nest in tree cavities. The smaller hooded variety sometimes stakes a domestic claim on a nesting box intended for wood ducks.

As I watched with field glasses through a cabin window, the “hoodies” on that sliver of open water were thrashing the surface into a cascade of spray. One drake would rush the other—the two of them virtually submerging in the process—then the aggressor would turn its attention to the hen, and try to mount her. The other drake would rejoin the fray, only to be driven off again in a tumult of splashing. Finally, after multiple assaults, an armistice was called. The dominant drake and the hen swam off, with the loser in this nuptial fracas accepting the verdict and ceasing hostilities.

Hooded mergansers take a back seat to no other duck in striking appearance, except perhaps the outrageously gaudy wood duck. Like most duck species, the male is more brilliantly plumed than the hen, which probably has survival value for the brood of ducklings that the hen will soon be raising. If you like formal wear, you’ll love the male hooded merganser’s plumage, a high-contrast study in artfully-placed black and white.

The source of its name is the tall crest, or “hood,” on the top of its head, a duck world version of the Mohawk haircut. Against the iridescent black of its head and neck is a wedge of brilliant white, the contrast most apparent when the male raises its crest to full height and puffs out its neck during courtship display.

The male also has flank feathers of chestnut brown barred with black, which I prize for one of the fishing flies that I tie. I don’t intentionally harvest birds I don’t intend to eat, great feathers notwithstanding. If I bag a male hoodie, I’ll go to my favorite wild game cookbook for a recipe with plenty of “chemistry” to compensate for a strong-tasting, fish-eating bird.

Realistically, hunters shouldn’t expect wild game birds to taste like a Jennie-O turkey or a Cornish game hen. When it comes to palatability, “gamey” is in the taste buds of the beholder, and the culinary savvy of the cook. Though I mean no affront to anyone’s tastes, I wouldn’t trade a hooded merganser breast for a slice of liver!