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Common Merganser

Mergus merganser

Length: 25 inches Wingspan: 35 inches Seasonality: Migrant / Winter
ID Keys: White body with dark blackish-green head, black back.  Female gray with rusty head.

Common Merganser - Mergus merganserCommon Mergansers are a common migrant in South Dakota, and a common winter resident along larger river systems in the state.  They have also occasionally been confirmed as breeders in the Black Hills. An expert diving fish-eater, they have a large bill with serrations that assist them in grabbed onto slippery fish and other prey. Common Mergansers are typically gregarious, foraging in small groups, although large flocks may form in winter below large Missouri River reservoirs in the state.  The species is also found in Europe, where it is called a "Goosander".


Strongly prefers freshwater, where it can be found on a variety of open water habitats. 


Mostly fish.  Also crustaceans, amphibians, aquatic insects, and occasionally aquatic plants. 


Forages by diving below the water's surface and swimming underwater, propelled by its feet.  They can sometimes be seen swimming on the surface, peering underwater with their heads partially submerged, and then diving after prey underwater when it is spotted.


Rare breeder in South Dakota. Common Mergansers are cavity nesters, most frequently nesting in an old woodpecker cavity or other cavity in a tree. Much less frequently, they will nest in other types of cavities, including cavities in man-made structures, natural crevices on rocky ground, or even inside of a hollow log. At the nest site the female will scrape together natural material as a base (for example, the wood chips at the bottom of a tree cavity), and then typically line the bottom of the nest site with downy feathers. The female will lay between 6 and 16 eggs, and she alone incubates them. Incubation takes about 4 weeks. After all the young in a brood hatch, the female will lead the young to a nearby water body and tend to them, while the young gather their own food. Common Mergansers can also practice nest parasitism, laying the eggs in the nests of other merganser (or even other species).


Common Mergansers are typically quiet, but will make various calls in and around nesting sites, and when alarmed. including hoarse croaking and quacking-like calls.


Summers in Canada and extreme northern U.S., winters throughout much of the United States interior, and sometimes on protected bays along coastlines.

Interactive eBird Map:

Click here to access an interactive eBird map of Common Merganser sightings

Similar Species:

Other mergansers are the species most likely to be confused with a Common Merganser, particularly female merganser species.

Red-breasted Merganser - Mergus serrator Red-breasted Merganser - Mergus serrator Hooded Merganser 1 - Lophodytes cucullatus Hooded Merganser 2 - Lophodytes cucullatus
Red-breasted Merganser Red-breasted Merganser Hooded Merganser Hooded Merganser

Conservation Status:

Numbers appear to be stable throughout most of their North American range, as well as in their Eurasian range. They are found across an extremely broad geographic area, in both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, and are common in parts of that range. The IUCN considers the Common Merganser to be a species of "Least Concern".

Further Information:

Photo Information:

May 2014 - Kenai River in Alaska - Terry Sohl

Additional Photos:

Click on the image chips or text links below for additional, higher-resolution Common Merganser photos.

AAudio File Credits:

Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
Common Merganser - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Common migrant throughout the state.  Common winter resident along the Missouri River, uncommon elsewhere where open water is available.  There have been some recorded instances of breeding in the Black Hills.

Additional Common Merganser Photos
Click for a higher-resolution version of these photos
Common Merganser 1 - Mergus merganserCommon Merganser 2 - Mergus merganserCommon Merganser 3 - Mergus merganserCommon Merganser 4 - Mergus merganserCommon Merganser 5 - Mergus merganserCommon Merganser 6 - Mergus merganserCommon Merganser 7 - Mergus merganser