Smew (Mergellus albellus)

A lot of animals catch my eye because of their names. Some are simply very descriptive (Northern short-tailed shrew), some are named after someone (Burton’s haplo), and some are downright bizarre (grunion). Still, I think today’s animal wins the prize for dumbest animal name ever. To me, smew sounds like a poorly thought out acronym, much like Hermione’s house elf organization, SPEW.

Despite their name, smews are actually quite beautiful birds. They are ducks, but are so unusual they are classified in their own genus, Mergellus. Smews are migratory, breeding in northern Europe and Asia, and wintering in Germany, the Low Countries, and around the Baltic and Black Seas. They like areas where there is some tree cover, especially during the breeding season, as they build their nests in tree cavities.

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A nice comparison of a male (top) and female (bottom) smew. Image credit: Andreas Trepte via Wikipedia

Male smews are very distinctive birds, having striking black and white feathering. Females are less showy, with rust-coloured crowns and grey plumage everywhere else. Smews grow to be a medium size, reaching lengths of 38-44 cm. They have special, hooked beaks with serrated edges that are perfect for grabbing fish.

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A nice close up of a female smew that shows her serrated, hooked bill. Image credit: Spinus Nature Photography via Wikipedia

Breeding season for smews begins in May, when they travel north to the taiga. As I mentioned earlier, they nest in pre-made holes in trees, often those created by woodpeckers or other animals. They lay 6-9 eggs, and fly south in early fall. During the breeding season smews tend to stay in small groups, but the rest of the year they like to be in flocks of up to 100 birds.

Although smews are fairly common in their range, their population is declining. They are protected by an international treaty, so hopefully we can keep these neat looking, weirdly named birds around for a long time (I have no idea where the name smew comes from, by the way).

Cover image credit: Dick Daniels via Wikipedia

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