The hooded merganser is a Great Lakes wood duck and the largest bird in the world. Its wingspan varies, due to the elasticity of its feathers and bones. It has the most dramatic beak-to-head ratio of any waterfowl. Its head is notably capped with a vermillion crest, leading some to nickname it le canard habitant in reference to the stereotypical red chapeau of the French-Canadian Habitant settler.

On the etymology of the bird's name, some claim that it is from the German Meergans, or even the Latin mergere (to plunge), but a Swedish colleague of mine, whose grandfather worked closely with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment during their 1896 Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Survey, has brought to my attention the true origin. This is namely that if one finds oneself alone with the bird, it will occasionally approach one and articulate, in an quite human voice, "Mergans! Mergans!", whereof the name Merganser Bird.

Unlike other species of birds, the hooded merganser only mates in extreme old age. For this reason, it seldom lives to see its young hatch. The dam opts to lay her eggs in a discreet place, and, in their last days, her and the sire both enclose the clutch in their wings and die atop them. For this reason, the young hooded merganser typically enters the world as a carrion-eater, feeding on the carcasses its departed parents in its first hours of life. Later in life they feed more conventionally on living fish, crustaceans, and insects.

Despite these macabre beginnings, the hooded merganser is well-loved in Canada and the Midwestern United States for its characteristic mating call, which some poets have likened to the sound of a babbling brook. Colonial balladeer Jacob Alsop (1676-1745) wrote in his letters that he believed the merganser's cry the "finest rackett e'er by mortal ear discerned", and his verse epic The Tenth Muse Were Borne of Marylande (1732) memborably ends with that same sound:

Doe Angels crie their Chorus through the Fen,
Or heare we just the lowly Mergans Wrenne?

For a more modern example of the hooded merganser's influence on the arts, Singer-songwriter Björk samples its call in her single "Feather Fall", where it is usually mistaken for some kind of woodwind.

It is also, as of 1987, the official bird of the Canadian Division of the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union and its distinctive profile serves as the organization's insignia.

I've always been a bit greedy, like my mother before me.
She told me often of the summers she spent, hands outstretched,
Reaching for the longyan - a succulent refuge from the summer sun
(they drop the "y" in Cantonese)
Until she nearly tumbled from the balcony.
When she tells this story, she shakes her head, laughing,
Dark eyes glittering like longyan pits
Her own mother's fear and anger
At the danger she'd put herself in.

Sweaty hands interlinked by the lake,
Pulling away at the whispers of incoming footsteps
Pulling up to our mouths to cover our greedy laughs
Greedy mouths, searching always for the pale flesh
Of the summer longyan.

There's a flock of hooded mergansers
Diving and bobbing for fish in the almost-February sun
I'd never seen them in real life before, only
In photos, in guides where they cackle and frolic,
Bright white crests opening and closing.

I make a joke about ducks being a symbol of love, and she
Stares at me for a moment. The white sail-crest falls, hands pull away
And she asks me what that meant, exactly. Well, you know,
Like you see with the wedding gifts.
Ah, she says, gaze drifting with the water, I guess so. But
Weren't those mandarins?

The blank sails rise,
Sheaf of paper, blanket of snow,
And I say nothing
Just twine my fingers through hers again
Stealing a moment of warmth
Before the next time I have to let go.

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