The pretty little smew is at once known from all our diving-ducks by its short narrow dark beak; its quick nimble way of rising into the air is also distinctive among this splattering tribe, though it often prefers to swim, which it can do at great speed, rather than fly. It can swim, either high or low in the water, and is exceedingly wary.
The adult male's plumage is very distinctive and beautiful, being white below and on the head and neck, except for a black patch on each side of the face, like a mask, and a black V at the back of the head, which has a full, though short crest.
The rest of the plumage is black, white, and grey, no other colour appearing. The weight is about a pound and a half. Females and young males, which are much smaller, the male not attaining either full size or colour till his second year, and much more likely to be met with, are dark grey above and white below, with bright chestnut head and white throat, and black-and-white wings. They weigh little over the pound. The short narrow beak and bright chestnut head with pure white throat extending well up on the jaws make the name of "weasel-coot," or its equivalent " vare-wigeon," sometimes given as this bird's old English names, quite intelligible, as there is something decidedly weaselly about the bird's look. In its extreme activity also this little fishing duck recalls the smallest of the four-footed carnivora; it is the fastest diver of all our waterfowl, flies with ease and speed, and even on land, in spite of the breadth of its body and shortness of its legs, to say nothing of its very large feet, moves quite quickly and looks far less ungainly than many ducks one would expect to walk better.
In this activity this bird resembles the mandarin duck, which also, by dint of sheer energy of movement, is able to hold its own with other ducks in departments for which they seem to be better adapted structurally. Another coincidence between these two pretty species is the fact that they both breed in holes in trees ; but the smew is even less likely than the mandarin to be found breeding here. So far it is only known as a winter visitor to the north of India, from Sind to Assam; it does not appear to go further south than Cuttack, and though fairly well known in the North-west is not abundant anywhere. It is generally seen in flocks of about a dozen, but pairs or single birds may occur. In the case of one such which was shot, the flesh was found to be quite good eating, which was rather unexpected, the smew generally having a particularly bad name for excessive fishiness of flavour. Besides fish, however, it feeds on water-insects and shellfish, and even aquatic plants.
It is a widely distributed bird, ranging all across the Old World, though it only breeds in high latitudes. The courtship is very interesting to watch, the bird swimming about with the bead drawn back proudly like a miniature swan, and the fore¬part of the crest raised, while now and then he rears up in the water with down-bent head.