Two male Red-breasted mergansers perform courtship display in front of a female

A Red-breasted Ballet… For Now

It’s almost time for the annual duck dance.

The Red-breasted Mergansers put on quite a springtime show. They scoot. They splash. The handsome boys bow to impress the ladies. I never tire of watching their annual courtship display.

I’ve written about this flirty dance before. Each year, in early spring, large groups of Red-breasted Mergansers gather in the water below our home. Both males and females zip about. When the boys make their grand bowing gestures, they often synchronize in pairs. Here’s one scene from last year’s merganser ballet:

Sometimes, a female performs a similar gesture.

Is she bowing like the boys? Maybe. Or is she chewing that one fellow out?

You can see the Red-breasted Mergansers’ full courtship ballet in a story I posted a few years ago.

Here in southwest Michigan, we always have lots of dim, cloudy days as winter winds down. Seeing the mergansers’ animated flirting is a welcome sign of spring and brighter days to come.

But this year, I’ll be watching with a note of sadness. I recently read a climate-change discussion by The National Audubon Society. They predict that warmer temperatures will change the Red-breasted Merganser’s breeding range, causing the species “to shift mostly out of the conterminous 48 states.” By warmer, Audubon means as little as a 1.5-degree increase, which they project will happen as soon as 2050 unless we humans take measures to prevent that.

Spring just won’t be the same if it no longer brings these magnificent birds our way.


To learn more, I highly recommend the National Audubon Society’s Red-breasted Merganser account. Be sure to scroll to the map near the bottom of the page. That’s where you’ll find information about climate change’s projected effect on the bird’s range.

For this post’s related kids’ book, I recommend The Topsy-Turvy Bus, for kids four to eight.

Written by Anita Fitch Pazner and illustrated by Carolina Farias, it’s a fun story about kids who learn about the earth’s problems—pollution, plastics, and more—and some solutions, like organic farming methods, reusable bags, and recycling. They also get to ride on the Topsy Turvey Bus, which runs on biodiesel fuel made with used vegetable oil. The book explains our planet’s problems and a range of solutions in kid-friendly terms, with a glossary and instructions for making your own compost.

The book also includes information about the real Topsy Turvy Bus, which looks just like the one on the book cover. Created by Hazon, the Jewish Lab for Sustainability, there’s one bus in Connecticut and a second in Michigan. These buses were made to teach kids “how to recycle, rethink, reuse, and renew our world’s resources.”
You can see them (and learn about Hazon’s mission) in this YouTube video.

For more about biofuel and how it can help in the fight against climate change, here’s an explanation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Climate Portal. The article (which is geared toward adults but would support a discussion with kids) does a great job of explaining the challenges of creating and using biofuels on a very large scale while still remaining carbon neutral.

Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

6 thoughts on “A Red-breasted Ballet… For Now”

  1. Just yesterday there were 3 very small mergansers at our dock swimming rapidly around the edge of the lake. Too small for red breasted. Went by so fast I couldn’t get a good look. Will do more research. One of my favorite memories of Michigan was seeing those Merganser boys in the spring all black and white waiting for the beautiful brown females to show up. It would be a huge loss to lose that experience.

    1. Carol, that loss would be sad indeed. I need to find out which other of our lake birds will move as well. I imagine the mergansers are not alone in this.

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