Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
BUFF-BREASTED MERGANSER, OR GOOSANDER.
MERGUS MERGANSER, Linn.
PLATE CCCCXI.--MALE, AND FEMALE.
This species may be said to be a constant resident with us, as many
individuals breed in the interior of the states of New York, Massachusetts, and
Maine. When I first resided in Kentucky, some bred there also, although at the
present day none pass the summer in that country. In the latter part of autumn,
in winter, and in early spring, they are found in all parts of the Union; in
Texas I procured some in April, 1837, and in the beginning of May saw a
considerable flock in Galveston Bay. How much farther southward their
migrations extend I know not, but from having observed them coming from that
direction, I suspect that they advance pretty far into the interior of Mexico,
from which some perhaps cross to the Arkansas river, on which I have also seen
them. On the Mississippi, the Ohio, and their tributaries, Goosanders are found
during the coldest weather; and when the larger streams are covered with ice,
they betake themselves to such smaller creeks as have very rapid currents or
cascades, about which they feed. But there are parts of our southern coast,
where they are exceedingly rare, such as South Carolina, where my friend Dr.
BACHMAN has never seen one, and the Floridas, in which none occurred to me
during my rambles there. Indeed one is surprised to find that among birds like
this, which is so hardy as to remain in our North-eastern States during the
severest part of the winter, some should extend their movements at the same
season as far to the south-west as Texas; but facts like these are beyond our
philosophy. In the lower parts of Louisiana, this species is called the
"Bec-scie-de-mer," probably because there it is found only on the large
salt-water lakes, and about the mouths of the Mississippi, and to distinguish it
from the Hooded Merganser, which there is more usually seen on fresh water. I
have been assured by Professor MACCULLOCH of Pictou that it now and then breeds
in Nova Scotia. Yet I found none in Labrador or Newfoundland, where the
Red-breasted species was breeding in great numbers. Dr. RICHARDSON found it in
abundance in the Fur Countries.
The Goosander is a vigorous and robust bird. It swims deeply, but with
considerable speed, even against a strong current, running waters being
generally preferred by it, even when rather shallow, provided their beds are of
sand or pebbles, for it is rarely seen on muddy or stagnant waters, even during
the breeding season, when it returns to the inland lakes. Like the Grebes it
has the power of sinking backwards, and it dives expertly, remaining
occasionally several minutes beneath the surface. It usually swims and dives
against the current, and close by the shores, extricating itself from floating
ice by passing under it. Its voracity is great, so that it consumes an
extraordinary quantity of fish. I have found fishes in its stomach seven inches
in length, and of smaller kinds so many as to weigh more than half a pound.
Digestion takes place with great rapidity, insomuch that some which I have fed
in captivity devoured more than two dozen of fishes about four inches in length,
four times daily, and yet always seemed to be desirous of more. The alleged
awkwardness of this bird when on shore is a fable, for I have seen individuals
while courting in spring run with great celerity fifty or more yards at a time,
keeping nearly in an erect position. On occasions of this kind I have observed
on the sand-bars of the Mississippi flocks of seven or eight males chasing each
other with great animosity. At other times, however, they are not fond of
walking much, but when on shore are generally seen lying flat on the ground. At
times the Mergansers rise almost at once on wing from the water, but at others
they seem to find considerable difficulty, patting it with their feet for many
yards. These differences seem to depend on various circumstances, such as their
being suddenly surprised, or during violent winds. They generally, if not
always, rise on wing against the breeze.
The flight of the Goosander is powerful, and as rapid and sustained as that
of the Red-breasted and Hooded Mergansers. When fairly under way and at a good
height, they advance in an almost direct course and proceed with surprising
velocity, so that, when suddenly apprised of the vicinity of man, they at times
find it difficult to check their speed so quickly as may be necessary for their
safety. I well remember that on several occasions having watched one of these
birds flying directly up a creek and towards me, I have taken aim at it and
fired when it was at the proper distance, and yet such had been its velocity
that it would advance, after being shot, many yards towards me. When rising
from the water, whatever number may be in the flock, they all start together,
paddle off with their feet and wings, stretching out their necks, and thus run
as it were on the water to the distance of twenty or thirty yards with great
velocity, extending in a front, or following each other in a line, according to
the extent of the space before them. They then gradually ascend to the height
of the trees, and move off to some considerable distance, but often return to
the same place. They seem to ascertain the fertility of the waters by sipping a
little on their alighting, and then, having found appearances favourable, they
open their bills, apparently to take a deep inspiration, and immediately dive.
When they have procured a sufficiency of food, they betake themselves to some
sand-bar, on which they repose until it is digested.
The Goosander rises to the surface with the fish in its bill, and, shifting
it about until it is in a proper position, swallows it head foremost, then dives
for more. So deeply does it swim, that on such occasions not more than a third
of its body is seen on the surface; and there is very little chance of shooting
it, for it dives on seeing the flash, or even on hearing the click of the lock.
The only chance of procuring one at such times is when, on coming to the
surface, it stretches itself up and beats its wings. If it is only wounded, it
often exhibits great tenacity of life, and diving at once remains a long time in
the water. On emerging, it is seen shaking its head violently, for the purpose
of disgorging its food, and, perhaps, the blood that has flowed into its lungs;
and, on effecting this, it again plunges headlong. At length, you see it come
to the surface, with its beautifully tinged breast upwards; but if your object
be to obtain game, you will have little satisfaction in procuring a Goosander or
any of its genus, for they are all fishy, oily, tough, and fitted for the palate
of none but experienced epicures. The food of the Goosander consists chiefly of
fish, but also of bivalve shells, snails, leeches, aquatic lizards, crays, and
Now, good reader, spring has once more gladdened the face of nature, pearly
drops hang on every leaf, glistening in the bright sunshine, and thousands of
gay insects flutter around. My light canoe is ready. Leap in, seat yourself
snugly in the bow, and sit still while I paddle you to the green islands of this
beautiful lake, where we shall probably find a Merganser or two, perhaps a
female sitting on her eggs. As to the dog, we need him not; so lie thee down,
Baron, until I return. I was always fond of "paddling my own canoe," and I
never met with a single accident so long as I managed it myself; but on more
occasions than one I have been turned out as gently as one turns himself in bed,
and having put the frail bark to rights, have assisted the awkward fellow who
had caused the disaster, dived for his gun and my own, and conducted him to the
camp to dry his garments. Therefore, be quiet, and fear nothing. How smooth
and silvery are the pure waters, how beautiful those tall trees! The dogwood is
in full bloom, so are the maples, whose rich red blossoms cluster on the twigs.
Here we are just entering the rushes of this little island. Get out, and wade
to the shore with all possible gentleness; or allow me to do so; for to lighten
our slight bark, one of us must get into the water. Softly we advance as I pull
the canoe by the bow; but now, squat, for here are tracks of the Goosander.
There now lies the female close before us. She thinks we have not seen her, for
she crouches closer upon her eggs. Alarm her not, or she will soon depart.
There she croaks, and scrambling off through the tall grass, flies off on rapid
wings. Look at the nest! count the eggs if you choose, but allow me, if you
please, to describe them.
The islands on which the Goosander is wont to breed are mostly small, as if
selected for the purpose of allowing the sitting bird to get soon to the water
in case of danger. The nest is very large, at times raised seven or eight
inches on the top of a bed of all the dead weeds which the bird can gather in
the neighbourhood. Properly speaking, the real nest, however, is not larger
than that of the Dusky Duck, and is rather neatly formed externally of fibrous
roots, and lined round the edges with the down of the bird. The interior is
about seven and a half inches in diameter, and four inches in depth. There are
seldom more than seven or eight eggs, which measure two inches and seven-eighths
in length, by two inches in breadth, are of an elliptical form, being nearly
equally rounded at both ends, smooth, and of a uniform dull cream-colour. The
young are led to the water in a few hours after they are hatched, and are
covered with fur-like hair, of a reddish-brown colour about the head and neck,
the body lightish grey. They are excellent divers, and run on the surface with
surprising velocity; but they are not able to fly for nearly two months, when,
being fat, they are easily fatigued if closely pursued, and on such occasions
will often betake themselves to the shore, lie down, and even allow you to lay
hold of them. My friend THOMAS NUTTALL has given an interesting account of his
chase of a brood of Goosanders.
"Early in the month of May, 1832, while descending the Susquehanna near to
Dunstown, a few miles below the gorge of the Alleghanies, through which that
river meanders near the foot of the Bald Eagle Mountain, G. LYMAN, Esq. and
myself observed, near the head of a little bushy island, some Wild Duck, as we
thought, with her brood making off round a point which closed the view. On
rowing to the spot, the wily parent had still continued her retreat, and we gave
chase to the party, which with all the exertions that could be made in rowing,
still kept at a respectful distance before us. We now perceived that these
diminutive possessors of their natal island were a female Goosander or Dun
Diver, with a small but active little brood of eight young ones. On pushing the
chase for near half an hour, the young, becoming somewhat fatigued, drew around
their natural protector, who now and then bore them along crowding on her back.
At length, stealing nearly from our sight, as the chase relaxed, the mother
landed at a distance on the gravelly shore, which being nearly of her own grey
colour and that of her family, served for some time, as a complete concealment.
When approached again, however, they took to the water, and after a second
attempt, in which the young strove to escape by repeated divings, we succeeded
in cutting off the retreat of one of the family, which was at length taken from
behind a flat boat under which it had finally retreated to hide. We now
examined the little stranger, and found it to be a young Merganser of this
species, not bigger than the egg of a Goose, and yet already a most elegant
epitome of its female parent, generally grey, with the rufous head and neck, and
the rudiments of a growing crest. After suffering itself to be examined with
great calmness, and without any apparent fear, we restored it to its more
natural element, and, at the first effort, this little diminutive of its species
flew under the water like an arrow, and coming out to the surface only at
considerable distances, we soon lost sight of it, making good its aquatic
retreat in quest of the parent. On inquiry, we learned from the tavern-keeper,
that for several years past a nest or brood of these birds had annually been
seen near this solitary and secluded island." The male Goosanders leave the
females immediately after incubation has commenced, and are then seen in the
wildest parts of the country. Several females are often found breeding on the
same island, and it is after their young are pretty well grown, that they moult.
For a number of years past, I have sometimes entertained a hope, at the approach
of the breeding season, of finding a male Goosander having his head adorned with
a broad erectile crest, like that of the female and young, but I have hitherto
been disappointed, and am therefore unable to say whether such a crest ever
exists in that sex. The young of both sexes retain the colouring of the female
for two years, during which time the males can be distinguished from the females
only by their being much larger. The males have not the rich bully tint on the
breast until about two years after they have commenced breeding, and the first
perceptible change by which their sex is distinguished is the appearance of
black feathers on the head and neck. Until of late years, the females were
thought to be of a distinct species, to which the name of Dun Diver was given.
Many writers have said that this bird breeds in the hollows of trees, or on
their branches; but of the various nests which I have found, not one occurred in
such situations; and the Hooded Merganser is the only species of this genus
which I have observed nestling, in an elevated place.
The notes of the Goosander are harsh, consisting of hoarse croaks, seldom
uttered unless the bird be suddenly startled, or when courting. The females are
usually silent, but when with their young brood, and pursued, they emit the same
guttural sounds as the males. Goosanders are easily caught with hooks baited
with fish; my friend JOHN BACHMAN has procured them in this manner on the Hudson
river, and I also have on the Ohio.
Along with the representation of a pair of adult birds of this species, I
have given a correct view of the Cohoes Falls, in the State of New York.
GOOSANDER, Mergus Merganser, Wits. Amer. Orn., vol. viii. p. 68.
MERGUS MERGANSER, Bonap. Syn., p. 397.
MERGUS MERGANSER, Goosander, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii.p. 461.
GOOSANDER, Mergus Merganser, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 460.
GOOSANDER, Mergus Merganser, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iv. p. 261.
Male, 27, 36. Female, 24, 34.
In winter dispersed over the United States, and westward as far as Texas.
Breeds from Massachusetts northward, and along the Great Lakes.
Bill about the length of the head, straight, strong, tapering, higher than
broad at the base, nearly cylindrical toward the end. Upper mandible with the
dorsal outline sloping gently to the middle, then straight, along the unguis
suddenly decurved; the ridge broad at the base, then convex; the sides sloping
rapidly at the base, convex toward the end; the edges serrated beneath; the
unguis oblong, much curved, abruptly rounded at the end. Nasal groove
elongated; nostrils submedial, linear, direct, pervious. Lower mandible with
the angle very narrow, and extended to the unguis, which is obovate; the sides
nearly erect in their outer half, with a long narrow groove, the edges serrate
Head rather large, compressed, oblong. Neck rather short, thick. Body
full, depressed. Feet placed far behind, short, stout; tibia bare for about a
quarter of an inch; tarsus very short, compressed, anteriorly covered with small
scutella, and another row on the lower half externally, the sides reticulate.
Hind toe very small, with an inferior free membrane; anterior toes half as long
again as the tarsus; second shorter than fourth, which is almost as long as the
third, all connected by reticulated webs, which are deeply concave; the outer
toe slightly margined, the inner with a broad marginal membrane. Claws rather
small, moderately arched, compressed, acute, that of the middle toe with a thin
Plumage moderately full, dense, soft, glossy. Feathers of the head and
neck silky, blended, elongated along the median line, so as to form a not
conspicuous crest; of the back rather compact; of the lower parts blended.
Wings short, of moderate breadth, convex, acute; primaries narrow, tapering, the
first scarcely shorter than the second, the rest rapidly graduated; secondaries
rather short, narrow, rounded, the inner elongated and tapering. Tail short,
much rounded, of eighteen rather narrow rounded feathers.
Bill bright vermilion, with the unguis black. Iris carmine. Feet
orange-red in winter, bright vermilion in the breeding season. Head and upper
half of neck greenish-black, splendent, with bright green reflections; hind part
of the neck below white; fore part of neck and all the under parts of a delicate
reddish-buff; the sides of the rump and part of the abdomen greyish-white,
finely undulated and dotted with dark grey; some of the lower wing-coverts
dusky, the larger coverts and primaries light grey. The fore part of the back,
and the inner scapulars, glossy black; the hind part ash-grey, becoming lighter
and finally undulated on the rump. Upper tail-coverts and tail-feathers deep
grey, outer scapulars white; a transverse band of black at the base of the wing,
concealed by the scapulars. Wing-coverts white, alula, primary coverts, primary
quills, and a band formed by the base of the first row of large coverts, black;
secondaries white, six of them margined externally with a black line, the
innermost margined on both webs, but more broadly on the inner, and with the tip
Length to end of tail 27 inches, to end of claws 26 1/2, to end of wings
24, to carpal joint 13 5/8, to end of green on the neck 7 1/4; extent of wings
36; bill along the ridge 2 8/12, along the edge of lower mandible 3 1/12; wing
from flexure 11 1/4; tail 5; tarsus 1 (10 1/2)/12; first toe and claw 10/12;
outer toe 2 (7 1/2)/12, its claw (4 1/2)/12; middle toe 2 8/12, its claw 5/12.
Weight 5 lbs. Of another 3 3/4 lbs.
Dimensions of two other Males:
Length to end of tail, . . . . . 26 25 7/8 inches.
Length to end of claws, . . . . . 27 25
Length to end of wings, . . . . . 24 23 1/2
Extent of wings, . . . . . . . 38 35
The female is much smaller. The bill, eyes, and feet are coloured as in
the male, but the ridge of the bill is black, and the nail whitish; the
longitudinal crest is much more elongated, being composed of linear feathers,
some of them fully two inches and a half long. Head and upper part of neck
brownish-red; throat white; all the upper parts, with the sides of the body and
rump deep ash-grey, the feathers paler at the margin. Smaller wing-coverts and
inner secondaries grey; bases and tips of secondary coverts black, the
intermediate part white; middle secondaries white, outer and primaries black;
anterior part of neck below faintly banded with ash-grey; breast and abdomen
white, slightly tinged with buff.
Length to end of tail 24 inches, to end of claws 23 1/2, to end of wings
20 3/4; extent of wings 34; bill along the ridge 1 11/12, along the edge of
lower mandible 2 1/2; wing from flexure 10 1/4; tail 4 1/2; tarsus 1 9/12; hind
toe and claw (8 1/2)/12; middle toe 2 4/12, its claw 5/12; outer toe 2 4/12,
its claw 4/12.
The young males after the autumnal moult, and until the middle of summer,
resemble the females.
An adult male obtained near Boston examined. The heart is 2 inches long;
the lobes of the liver are nearly equal, the right being 3 inches 7 twelfths
long, the left 3 inches 3 twelfths.
The upper mandible has about 28 recurved conical, acute, horny papillae,
and an internal series of smaller, on each side; the tip of the unguis
serrulate; on the lower mandible are about 40 of the same nature. The tongue is
2 inches 1 twelfth long, fleshy, emarginate, and papillate at the base,
tapering, with a double row of slender reversed papillae along the upper
surface, and two lateral series of filaments on each side; the tip lacerated,
horny on the back. Posterior nasal aperture oblong, 10 twelfths in length,
papillate on the edges. Aperture of the glottis 4 1/2 twelfths long. The mouth
is 10 twelfths in breadth, but may be extended to 1 inch 9 twelfths. The
oesophagus is 10 1/2 inches long, its diameter 1 inch 7 twelfths on the neck,
contracting to 8 twelfths as it enters the thorax, but again expanding; the
external coat of transverse muscular fibres very thick; the internal layer of
longitudinal fibres very distinct; the mucous coat thrown into prominent
longitudinal plaits when contracted; the mucous follicles disposed in
longitudinal single series. The proventriculus is 2 inches long, the glandules
very numerous, oblong, about 2 twelfths in length, forming a complete belt. The
stomach is a strong gizzard, of moderate size, 2 inches long, the lateral
muscles 5 twelfths thick; the epithelium very thick, nearly 1 twelfth,
longitudinally rugous. In the stomach and gullet was a fish 9 inches long, the
portions lying in the stomach and proventriculus partially dissolved, the rest 4
inches long, not acted upon; there were also two fragments of quartz, one of
them a quarter of an inch long. The intestine is long, measuring 6 feet 3
inches, its diameter from 5 to 3 twelfths. The coeca are 3 inches long, for
half an inch 1 1/2 twelfths in diameter, in the rest of their extent 4 twelfths.
The rectum 5 inches long, including the cloaca, which has a diameter of an inch
and a quarter.
The trachea, 10 1/2 inches long, has at first a diameter of 4 twelfths,
dilates gradually to 8 twelfths, then contracts to 4 twelfths, enlarges a second
time to 7 twelfths, and gradually contracts to 3 twelfths. In this space the
rings, 146, are strong, broad, and osseous. At its lower part is an enormous
dilatation composed of numerous united rings, bulging irregularly on the right
side and behind, and on the left expanded into a case having two large spaces
filled by membrane; the greatest diameter of this tympanum is 2 inches and 2
twelfths. The bronchi come off at the distance of nearly an inch from each
other, and are short, but wide, with about 25 half-rings. The lateral or
contractor muscles are very strong, give off a pair of cleido-tracheals from the
second enlargement, and at the commencement of the labyrinth the
sterno-tracheals, which are also very large; but there are no other inferior
The intestine of a male in the first winter is 6 feet 8 inches long, its
greatest diameter half an inch, wider towards the rectum than at the upper part,
where the diameter is 4 twelfths. Rectum 4 1/2 inches long, exclusive of the
cloaca. Coeca 2 1/4 inches. Contents of stomach, remains of fishes and a great
quantity of quartz fragments.
An adult female. OEsophagus 10 1/2 inches long; stomach 2 inches long;
intestine 5 feet 3 inches; rectum 4 1/2; coeca 2 2/12. The trachea 9 inches
long, of uniform diameter, 4 twelfths, with a very slight dilatation toward the
lower part, and at the lower larynx contracted to 3 twelfths; the last ring is
very large, laterally dilated, but symmetrical; the bronchi come off at the
distance of 5 twelfths from each other, and are composed of 25 rings. The
tracheal rings 150.