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The red-breasted merganser is back from Canada and loves the icy waters

Photo by Miles Brengle

Running with birds by Rebecca Pugh

If you are running near salt water, and you hear a sound like a soap bottle being emptied, look for a duck that swims low in the water.

If you see a bird who looks a bit like a black duck but with a thinner beak, you are getting closer to knowing what it is. If it has a tousled head with feathers sticking up in an impromptu crown, you can be nearly certain of it.

If the bill is red and the neck is slender, you know it for sure. You are running with red-breasted mergansers. 

Some call the red-breasted merganser the sawbill — the jagged edges in its beak are perfect for catching fish. And catching fish is exactly what its life is all about.

The red-breasted merganser will eat 15 to 20 fish a day and spend some five or six hours searching.  

Soon, the red-breasted merganser will migrate north, powered on all that fish. In its breeding time, it will choose a hidden spot under a fallen tree — sometimes nesting alone, at other times making colonies with gulls and terns.

The mating pair will create a hollow spot at the edge of a wetland area and line a nest with feathers plucked from their own breasts.

They lay three to 24 eggs. Then the pair splits up. The male leaves the nest early, before the eggs hatch, to molt in a secluded spot and fly south.

The female tends the nest, watches the eggs hatch, teaches the babies to swim and fish, then flies south later in the season. 

Red-breasted mergansers are some of the world’s fastest-flying ducks; they have been timed at 81 miles an hour.

If you see a duck in rapid flight with the head higher than the tail, you might be glimpsing it.

For them to take off, though, they need a long runway and a running start; their legs, like all the diving ducks, are far to the back of their bodies — perfect for swimming and diving, but more of a workout for getting airborne than other birds.

Their challenge is habitat. As they choose nesting sites in the farthest north spots of the world, they don’t have anywhere further north to migrate to when the climate changes.

When other migrating birds move up into their territory in search of cold and quiet, the red-breasted merganser will get crowded. We do not yet have the full measure of what this means for them. 

So, if you are heading out to run and having a hard time getting started, consider the red-breasted merganser. It has a lot of work, too, to launch itself.

It needs a lot of fish. But once it gets going, it is faster than almost any other duck. Perhaps on your run, these chilly February days, it might feel like almost too much work. But keep going.

And as you go, watch for these ducks with the narrow bills and the messy topknots. You might be running with red-breasted mergansers.


Rebecca Pugh, author of “Running with Birds,” is a storyteller, musician, and runner. Her training comes from the Mass Audubon Society, ornithologist Jim Berry, and her aunt, Pam Goff. Her research begins with “All About Birds” at the Cornell Ornithological Labs.

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