Red Breasted Merganser Bird Print by John James Audubon
Mergus Serrator - Mr. Audubon gives the following description in his book of the Red Breasted Merganser. The range of the Red-breasted Merganser is of vast extent. In North America I have found it pretty generally dispersed during winter and even to a late period in spring, from Texas to Labrador; and in the Fauna Boreali-Americana Mr. SWAINSON describes a male killed on the Saskatchewan. No date is mentioned, nor is any thing said as to its habits, which would lead me to believe that it must be a rare bird in the Fur Countries. It is found on the western coast however, and has been shot not far from the mouth of the Columbia river by a gentleman of Boston engaged in the fur-trade, and who is well acquainted with the water-birds of our country. In winter it is to be met with throughout the Union, on almost every unfrozen stream; but when the cold increases so as to close the waters it removes southward until it finds a suitable place.
This species is by choice mostly dependent on fresh water for its sustenance; but when the winters are very severe it throws itself into the salt lagoons or bays, and there seeks for prey to which it is not well accustomed, and which is rather more difficult to be overtaken, than that which is confined in the narrow mountain-streams for which it shews a natural predilection greater than even that of the Goosander, Mergus Merganser. It breeds in many parts of our Middle and Eastern States, and on two occasions I have found the female in charge of her brood in the lower parts of Kentucky. In the States of New York, Massachusetts and Maine it is by no means a rare occurrence to meet with the nest of this bird along the borders of small secluded lakes. It is as common at this season in the British provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and it is still more plentiful on the islands of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, as well as on the streams of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Red-breasted Merganser is best known throughout the United States by the name of \"Shell-drake.\" It is, like all the species of its tribe, a most expert diver, and on being fired at with a flint-locked gun generally escapes by disappearing before the shot reaches the place where it has been. Its flight is similar to that of the Goosander, being strong, rapid, and remarkably well sustained when it is travelling to a considerable distance. Gluttonous in the extreme, it frequently gorges itself so as to be unable to rise. I have several times seen one of them obliged to eject a great part of the contents of its stomach and gullet before it could fly off, and some which I have kept a day or two in confinement have died in consequence of swallowing too many fishes.
The \"Shell-drake,\" according to the latitude of the place which it has selected, and the degree of forwardness of the season, begins to form its nest from the first of March until the middle of May. Some nests which I examined in Labrador had not their full complement of eggs until about the 20th of June. In that country, as well as in several parts of the United States, where I have found the nests, they were placed within a very short distance of the margins of fresh-water ponds, among rank grasses and sedges, or beneath the low bushes. The nest bears a great resemblance to that of the Eider Duck, but is a good deal smaller, and better fashioned. It is made of dry weeds and mosses of various kinds, and is warmly lined with down from the breast of the female bird, for the male leaves her as soon as she has completed the laying of the eggs, the number of which I have never found to exceed ten, they being more frequently six or eight. It is a very remarkable fact that the eggs in this family of birds are usually even in number, whereas in most land birds they are odd. The eggs of the Red-breasted Merganser measure two and a half inches in length, an inch and five-eighths in breadth, resemble in form those of the domestic fowl, and are of a uniform plain dull yellowish cream-colour.
When one approaches the nest, the female usually slides or runs off a few paces, and then takes to wing. I have never observed the paths to the nests which some authors have described, and cannot well imagine why there should be any such, as this bird is capable of taking flight as readily as any with which I am acquainted. It uses the greatest precaution in retiring to the nest; and on more occasions than one I have remained well concealed at a short distance for upwards of an hour before the bird came back to her eggs. Perhaps this may tend to shew that there is less necessity for keeping the eggs warm, even when they are about to be hatched, in this than in other species, which are known to resume incubation as soon as possible.
The young betake themselves to the water a few hours after birth, and are from the first so expert at diving as to be procurable only with great difficulty. Indeed, when they are about a fortnight old, they move with astonishing rapidity, whether on the surface, where they run with almost the speed of a greyhound, or in the water itself, in which they shew themselves as much at home as if they were seals or otters. The only means of catching them that I have found successful is to throw stones at them, whenever they rise, until becoming fatigued, they make for the shore, where they stretch themselves out and remain quite still, so that you may go up to them and take them with the hand.
At the approach of autumn they resemble the old females; but the sexes can easily be distinguished by examining the unguis or extremity of the upper mandible, which will be found to be white or whitish in the males, and red or reddish in the females. The young males begin to assume the spring dress in the beginning of February, but they do not acquire their full size and beauty until the second year.
The Red-breasted Merganser is a shy bird. The males especially are extremely suspicious and vigilant, after they have left the females incubating, and when they congregate in flocks of from five to twenty on some sequestered clear stream, to renew their plumage. The moult is completed in the end of July or beginning of August, and at that, reason I had the greatest difficulty in procuring them, for, being then almost unable to rise from the water, they seemed to dive with an alertness proportionally greater.
The flesh of the bird is tough, and has a fishy taste. I have represented a male and a female, along with a new species of Sarracenia, which is found abundantly from Pensacola to Georgia, as well as in some parts of South Carolina.
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Inventory #401 Audubon Bird Prints