125. Mergus albellus

125. THE SMEW.

Mergus albellus, (LINNAEUS).

Outer web of the primaries blackish; inner web drab, with a blackish tip. Axillaries and under tail-coverts pure white.

Margins of the bill furnished with saw-like teeth. With two white bands across the black of the folded wing.

MALE :—Crown of the head white ; with some black bars on the sides of the breast.

FEMALE :—Crown of the head chestnut; with no black bars on the sides of the breast.

VERNACULAR NAMES -.—Nehenne, Hind.; ? Jhalow, Oudh.

THE Smew appears to be a fairly common bird, in winter, in the northern parts of the Empire. So far as we know, this species is not a resident in the Himalayas, but merely crosses these mountains on migration. The Smew is found in the Punjab, Sind and Northern Guzerat; also in the North-west Provinces and Oudh. It also occurs in Bengal, where Dr. Blanford met with it near Raniganj; and in Orissa, whence it is recorded by Dr. Jerdon. There are several skins of this species in the British Museum that were procured by Falconer in Bengal.

I can find no notice of the occurrence of this species in any part of the Empire east of Bengal, but there is apparently no reason why it should not occur commonly in Assam and thence down to Upper Burma.

The Smew in summer is found throughout Northern Asia and over a great part of Northern Europe, up to the Arctic circle. In winter it migrates as far south as the Mediterranean, the Black and the Caspian Seas, India, China and Japan.

The Smew arrives in Northern India in November and leaves again in March. The birds that visit us are mostly immature, and only a small proportion consists of old males and females.

Although the Smew, in most parts of its range, frequents alike salt and fresh water, here in India it seems to be exclusively a fresh-water species, being found on tanks and lakes of considerable extent and on the larger rivers. It is generally found in flocks, amounting sometimes to as many as forty, but more frequently not exceeding a dozen or twenty.

Little has been written by European authors regarding the habits of this species, and I shall here reproduce some of Mr. Hume's excellent notes on the Smew as observed in India in winter. He says : —" As a rule, they are wary birds, and difficult to approach. They keep in deep water, far away from any cover, and you can only shoot them from a boat. They can swim faster than any ordinary up-country native boat can be propelled, and faster than one can paddle a punt when lying down. They keep a very sharp look-out, never diving en masse, but some always watching while the rest are under water, and, as a rule, the moment they see any boat they swim away.... If you wait, as one does with most other fowl, till you can make certain what they are, they see you, and away they go swimming with little but their heads and necks visible, faster than you can paddle. But at times, I presume when they have never previously been fired at, you can get within shot without difficulty in a punt, and even by a little management in a common native boat, and you can always get a shot by sailing past them at about forty yards distance.

" They swim and dive splendidly, and if only a single boat is after them, they will constantly stick to the water even after being fired at, rising perhaps at the moment, but dropping within fifty yards, and instantly diving to reappear from fifty to a hundred yards beyond the place at which they vanished. They come up scattered, but all swim converging on one point, and in a few minutes are swimming away in a close lump, just as before you fired. But if two or three boats hem them in, they generally rise, and, if the place is small, disappear—if large, circle round and light again a couple of miles off. They spring out of the water with ease, and fly with great rapidity, quite as quickly and easily as the Common Teal, but almost silently, and with less of a perceptible wing-rustle than any species I know. This is probably due to their very narrow, pointed, somewhat curved wings, by which they can be instantly recognised when flying. They are very active, restless birds, almost always busy swimming and diving. I have never seen one on land, but I once saw a number asleep on the water about midday in March.

"They feed entirely under water. . . . No Duck can touch them at diving: even Grebes and Cormorants—and I have watched both perform the same manoeuvre, —are scarcely so rapid in their movements under water. They use their wings in diving, though they do not spread them fully, so that you must not judge of their performance by birds with wings injured above the carpal joint; but where the injury is merely on the carpus, sufficient to prevent flight, but not otherwise serious, their diving is a thing to watch."

Mr. E. T. Booth, in "Rough Notes," thus describes, the manner in which the Smew pursues and captures its prey:— " Several times this active little diver returned to the surface, having evidently met with no success, as after looking wistfully round he instantly plunged again. At last, with an unusual flutter, causing a perceptible ripple on the water, the hungry bird dashed up to within thirty yards of the punt, making frantic but apparently vain efforts to swallow a fish protruding at least a couple of inches from his bill. With distended throat and widely-opened mandibles, he swam round and round in circles, stretching forward his neck, and repeatedly dipping his bill below the surface for the distance of two or three yards; from time to time he lifted his head in the air with a resolute-shake. After these antics had been continued for some five or six minutes, the bird seemed to have satisfactorily disposed of his troublesome capture, and rising half out of the water commenced flapping his wings in the most vigorous manner. This was a chance not to be lost, and a charge from the punt-gun at about sixty yards laid this diminutive wanderer from the north dead as a stone on the water. On examination the stomach was found to contain one fresh roach of such dimensions that, when the small gullet of the bird was considered, it appeared a mystery how the little glutton succeeded in getting it down. There were also the bones of another fish of the same species, several minute shells and stones, and some fibrous grassy roots ; the latter were probably portions of the weed torn up from the bottom when the shells were swallowed."

The nest of the Smew has been found in Northern Europe on more than one occasion. Mr. Wolley's account of the breeding of this bird is unfortunately much too lengthy to be reproduced here, but Mr. Seebohm gives us a description of the breeding haunts of the Smew in Russia which I shall quote. He says:— " Harvie-Brown and I were fortunate enough to secure eggs of the Smew in North-east Russia. A few miles to the south of the Arctic circle, in the valley of the Petchora, is the small town of Haberiki, containing about a dozen houses. The timber for about a mile round has been cleared, but beyond the country consists of alternate lake, swamp, and forest. Grand old pines and larches, with stems three or four feet in diameter, conceal charming little alder and willow-fringed pools, and fallen trunks, covered with moss and lichen, provide excellent cover for watching the Ducks swimming fearlessly in these little paradises. The Smew is the greatest ornament of these picturesque little spots, but is not quite so common as Teal, Wigeon, and Pintail. We did not succeed in taking the nest of the Smew; but having commissioned some of the villagers to bring us eggs and down of Ducks, we were delighted to receive a clutch of what looked like Wigeon's eggs, with pale grey down. The man who brought it knew the bird well, and told us that he had taken the eggs from a hollow tree."

Some of these eggs brought by Mr. Seebohm from the Petchora are now in the British Museum. They are nearly elliptical in shape, very smooth and glossy. They are of a pale cream colour, and measure from 1.9 to 2.05 in length, and from 1.42 to 1.52 in breadth.

The Smew generally breeds in the month of July, and lays seven or eight eggs, which are placed in the hollow of of a tree or in one of the boxes hung up by the villagers for the use of the Golden-eye.

The adult male has a large, black patch in front of, and below, the eye; and a short black band on either side of the back of the head, the two bands not quite joining behind. With these exceptions, the whole head, the neck, and the lower plumage, with the axillaries, are pure white. The sides of the body are very delicately vermiculated with grey. The under wing-coverts are partly white and partly black. The upper part of the mantle is white with some of the feathers tipped with dusky. The back and the upper part of the rump are deep black. A narrow, crescentic black band springs from the upper back, and passes along the side of the breast. Many of the feathers at the shoulders are white with broad black tips, and some of these are concealed by the folded wings. The lower part of the rump and the upper tail-coverts are deep ashy with darker shafts. The tail is greyish brown. The inner scapulars are chiefly white, the outer, ashy brown. The lesser upper wing-coverts, near the edge of the wing and next the scapulars, are black, edged with whitish. The middle series of coverts is pure white. The large coverts, or third series, are black with narrow white tips. The inner webs of the primaries are drab, the tips and all the outer webs black. All the short secondaries are black, tipped with white. The first long secondary has the outer web white margined with black; the remaining secondaries are ashy grey.

The drake in post-nuptial plumage closely resembles the female, but may be recognised by the black-tipped feathers on the shoulders and sides of the breast.

The adult female has a large blackish patch, surrounding the eye, reaching to the bill in front, and to the side of the throat below. The forehead, the crown, the crest and the sides of the head are chestnut. The chin, the throat, the foreneck and the whole lower plumage, with the axillaries, are pure white, the breast tinged with ashy and with a brownish band across the base of the foreneck. The sides of the body are ashy brown; the under wing-coverts, a mixture of white and brown. The whole upper plumage and the scapulars are dark ashy brown, the back and rump almost black, and every feather margined paler. The tail is ashy brown. The whole wing, in every feature, resembles that of the adult male.

Ducklings change from the down into a plumage resembling that of the adult female, but the face is chestnut like the crown, there being no trace of any dark patch on that part of the head. The white upper wing-coverts are also margined with grey or brown, and the feathers of the crown and crest are tipped with black. According to Macgillivray, the drake does not assume the full plumage of the adult till the third autumn.

Male: length about 17 1/2; wing 8; tail 3 1/2. Female: length 16; wing 7 1/4; tail 3 1/4. The bill is bluish grey, with the nail whitish. The irides are brown or reddish brown in the young bird, red in the adult. The legs and feet are bluish grey with the webs dusky. Weight up to 1 3/4 lb.

A Manual Of The Game Birds Of India(water Birds)
Oates, Eugene Wifliam. A manual of the game birds of India. Vol.2. 1899.
Title in Book: 
125. Mergus albellus
Spp Author: 
Book Author: 
Eugene William Oates
Page No: 
Common name: 
Mergellus albellus
Vol. 2
Term name: 

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.
Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith