The naturalist interweb community can shine by times, as the following adventure demonstrates. I recently posted a version of the following tale on several naturalist discussion forums to which I belong:
“This morning I repeatedly heard odd thumping and crashing noises in our house emanating from . . . somewhere. I first blamed the cats, to no avail. When the noises recommenced after a quiet interlude I finally realised they were coming from the chimney of our fireplace, and by the volume I suspected a raccoon (ruling out squirrels, bats, and Chimney Swifts). There was, shortly after, a final “thump” and when I shone a flashlight through the soot-covered glass door to the fireplace I was very surprised to see a female Common Merganser staring back at me.
As I was concerned regarding the bird’s welfare I alerted the Hope for Wildlife Centre regarding a possible new patient, and then set about a possible rescue. I first closed the doors of the two rooms in which the cats were sleeping, to keep them from joining the fray. Next, with a blanket in hand, I carefully opened the glass door and gathered up the merganser. Once outside I loosened the blanket and the bird emerged in a flash, and immediately and strongly flew away, giving numerous cries of complaint (or of gratitude? Or of embarrassment?).
I was relieved the bird seemed to be not much worse for wear, and was then a bit chagrined that I had failed to make a video of the incident, though I confess my immediate concern was for the bird’s welfare — I did not wish to delay its release.
I phoned my friend Ian McLaren regarding this event, and he stated he had a memory of this happening to someone of his acquaintance many years ago, and he said he’d think about it further. In a brief search I could not find any other reference to Common Mergansers coming down chimneys. This was a new scenario for the Hope for Wildlife as well. Can anyone else shed some light on this sooty subject? And does this represent a new species of merganser — St. Nick’s Merganser (Mergus nicholasii)?”
I received a number of interesting, and often amusing, responses, but before I share them with you I thought I should share a photo of a female Common Merganser, to give you and idea of the intruder.
Female Common Mergansers – photo © 2008 by Blake Maybank.
It is larger than a Mallard, and is a diving duck, capable of swift flight. I photographed these two several years ago, in nearby Shad Bay. It is one of several species of ducks that nest in holes in trees: others include Hooded Merganser, Wood Duck, Bufflehead, and Common Goldeneye.
Here are some of the responses I received. The first was from my friend Ian.
“Better than my attenuated memory is a pertinent paragraph from “The Birds of North America” on-line, with references removed:
“Hole/cavity nester; generally uses trees, either live or dead (most tree species may be used); cavities include holes formed by Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) or by broken tree limbs, and hollow tops of standing trees .Recorded heights to entrance holes range from 1 to 30 m). Nests less frequently in rock crevices, old buildings or sheds, chimneys, lighthouses, holes in banks, holes in the ground, hollow logs, or burrows. Nests may be located far from water (>0.5 km; MLM)”
So Blake, you should have placed that box with a blanket at the bottom of the chimney, well screened from the cats, and then they would have had the pleasures of a mouth-watering and ear-tingling displays for days on end. Cheers.”
Regarding my question “And does this represent a new species of merganser — St. Nick’s Merganser (Mergus nicholasii)?”, Al replied, quite tersely,
David was equally pithy when he suggested:
“You might have the basis to write up a new species description, which I hope will include information about ecology (e.g., competition with reindeer).”
“This rang a bell for me and I was fairly sure I’d heard a similar story from someone relatively local, so I did a search through my old e-mail messages. Here’s a copy of the message I remembered.”
“On the topic of common merganser nesting site selection…Several years ago, two of my good friends arrived late at night at our cabin in Lycoming County. The cabin is right next to a tributary to the Little Pine Creek. After a poor night’s sleep due to a bumping and rustling sound, they awoke to find feathers next to the fireplace insert and the sound of a creature in the chimney. After a successful rescue mission and a few photographs, a potential mother merganser swam happily away. That weekend, they installed our merganser deterrent fence on top of the chimney. Aaron”
Rick, a birder here in Nova Scotia, wrote:
“Just last Friday, at Gold River Lake [a Nova Scotia Nature Trust property], I watched a female fly directly into a large, living, white pine stub. This was the main trunk that had broken right off, leaving a large cavity of unknown depth. She did not pause at the rim, but just flew or dropped right out of sight. I was following her with binocs at the time so saw the event rather well.”
Jeff wrote from Pennsylvania to relate:
“The Lehigh Gap Nature Center here in PA had a Common Merganser nesting in their chimney for a few years in a row. The chimney was blocked with a plug about 6 ft from the top, so the bird simply nested in a perfect cavity. I actually saw it go in one time. It scared the daylights out of me.”
My friend Cliff, from New Brunswick, knowing I am an avid naturalist, wondered, tongue in cheek . . .
“In that she came down your chimney, is this evidence that they do not choose their chimneys randomly?”
Elsewhere in Nova Scotia, Ken recalled the following:
“Sandy (from MacLellan’s Brook) has had this happen in his chimney with a Common Merganser as well a few years ago, and it was not the first one I had heard about.
I can remember the first time I saw a Hooded Merganser fly into a nest hole in a snag. I was sure it was going to smack against the tree, but it disappeared into the hole going at a pretty good clip.”
Ken wrote from Dalhousie in New Brunswick, with a tale of his own.
“No Common Merganser but here’s a photo of a Hooded Merganser I rescued from the stove pipe a few years back. I was not sure what I was reaching in for so I put on welding gloves. Like your merganser, she flew away to our duck pond, a little blackened but none the worse for wear.”
Female Hooded Merganser – photo © by Ken Reinsborough.
Julie wrote a polite missive:
“Great story Blake! I’ve not seen a ‘Mergus nicholasii’, but will keep my eyes open.”
Mary, from Mary’s Point NB had this to say:
Quite a few years ago some friends of ours had the same experience (also with a merganser) in their cottage on the lake. It was nesting time and they surmised the bird was looking for a nesting cavity. Nice story Blake, and good birding!”
Richard, from Newton, Massachusetts, shifted the chimney story from mergansers to other chimney birds. . .
“I once rescued a starling from a neighbor’s house — then had to return to scoop up a surprisingly calm Eastern Screech-Owl sitting behind a couch.”
I leave the final comment to David, a correspondent from Mary’s Point, NB:
“I wasn’t there when it happened, but three times during the 1950s and 1960s, female Common Mergansers came down the chimney of my family’s camp on the South Oromocto River, Near Hoyt, NB. One was found dead in the fireplace, and two knocked the fire-screen over and got into the camp, making quite a mess. One of those also died, but the third was banging around in the bedroom when we arrived for our weekend stay. We were able to release it in apparently good condition. All three incidents happened early in the nesting season.”
Let us leave the last word to the duck.