Sunday, February 27, 2011

Red Eyes!

I was walking along the East River in Manhattan yesterday, between the helicopter pier and the Brooklyn Bridge, when I noticed a brightly colored duck bobbing in the wake of pleasure boats and water taxis. As it came closer I recognized a male red-breasted merganser, Mergus serrator.

Closer still, you can see this bird's striking features. It has bright red eyes, an iridescent green head with a shaggy double-pointed crest, and a long thin orange bill.

Its breast is kind of red but most of us would call it brown -- a reddish brown that I think of as ornithological red. So I can't help wondering how this bird came to be called a red-breasted merganser. Picture the moment: Hmmm, should we call it red-eyed? Shaggy-haired? Orange-billed? Wait, I've got it! Let's name it for its least distinguishing and most easily confused feature!

The Merganser part makes sense, though. It is from Latin words mergas, meaning diver, and anser, meaning goose (close relative). They are divers, as the name says. It is easy to lose track of one as it dives and resurfaces far away.

And what is it doing in the East River looking incongruous? Red-breasted mergansers mainly eat fish, so it could have been looking for lunch. (The orange beak is serrated and helps to catch and hold prey.) They spend their winters in coastal waters, like the East River. They can be found on both coasts of the United States in winter and almost anywhere inland while migrating in spring and fall. They breed during summer in very far northern Canada and at high northern latitudes around the world.

This bird will spend the summer in the tundra or in a wild northern forest lake far from human civilization. What a contrast to spending a winter Saturday in New York City. How strange it must seem to sit amid the helicopter, boat, and car traffic while sirens wail and a photographer snaps shots from the shore.


  1. Delighted to discover your blog, and look forward to reading your book. I walk and write about encounters with wildlife in NYC, mostly Riverside Park lately. The red-tails have been extremely visible and active this winter, and the raccoons, who seem to have been sleeping off the cold, have just made a reappearance. Your merganser is lovely.

  2. Hi and welcome. Spotting urban wildlife a fine occupation, isn't it? Our neighborhood muskrat has been noticeably busy lately -- spring is surely imminent. Best, Julie