Photo credit: Dan Lory

I was probably about 7 years old when my uncle Zelo spun another of his Paul Bunyan-like tall tales. We were walking a pine forest of northern Michigan, looking for huckleberries and dodging mosquitoes. As we waded through the waist-high ferns we came upon a big depression about 5 feet deep and 50 feet across, where all the ground cover was completely gone, creating a huge bowl of yellow sand. “What do you think happened here?” I asked.

“I know exactly what happened,” my uncle said, “’cause I was here to see it. There used to be a little pond right there, you know. Remember last December, when we had that really sudden cold snap? Just after dawn I was out hunting, and as I approached this tiny pond I heard the loudest racket. I got closer, and saw the pond was filled with ducks, elbow to elbow. They were trying to fly away, but couldn’t. Turns out the pond had froze up solid overnight, and those poor ducks were stuck there with just their heads and wings free. It was a pitiful sight, as they flapped and flapped, trying to get away. 

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“Then you won’t believe what happened next. With all those ducks flapping to beat the band, as true as you and I are standing here, that whole frozen pond started to break free, and up it rose—like a big upside-down flying saucer. I stood there with my jaw to the ground, watching those ducks lug that huge chunk of ice over that hill there, heading south. I imagine the pond eventually melted somewhere over Louisiana, and those ducks made it to Mexico by happy hour.”

The story was hard to believe, even for a 7-year-old. I looked at the bare sandy area, “Really, Uncle Zelo. What kind of duck were they?” He answered without missing a beat, “Red-breasted Mergansers, every one of ‘em.” (My uncle got me every time with long names like that. After all, you don’t just make up a name like Red-breasted Merganser.) 

Well, in case you are sitting there wondering…. No, there is no way a flock of Red-breasted Mergansers could have made off with that frozen pond. To get up in the air, a Red-breasted Merganser—like its cousins the Hooded and Common Mergansers—has to get a good running start. When they take off from a lake, they sometimes run across the surface for 50 yards before they get airborne. No way could a flock of mergansers have lifted that pond straight up. Those must have been Mallards that my uncle saw, or maybe Wood Ducks, which take flight by shooting straight up from the water. 

So my uncle did not know his waterfowl as well as he liked to think he did. 

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The Red-breasted Merganser is in breeding plumage this time of year. The male is a beautiful mix of deep blue/black, orange/red, white and black. Before long he'll be strutting his spring courting display, and fighting with other males over potential mates. They can look pretty comical, with their bright orange eyes and long, thin serrated bill. The female is more subdued in color, with dark feathers around the eyes, giving her a bit of a Goth look.

The Red-breasted Mergansers will be with us in the Chicago area all winter. You won't find them on small ponds, though. They like bigger bodies of water, where you can often see them very close to shore. So get out to Lake Michigan and enjoy!

Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.