The goosander is a fishing duck built on the lines of a cormorant; narrow head, long flat body, with legs far astern, rather long tail, and especially long, narrow, hooked beak; in fact, many people on the first sight of one hardly realize it is a duck at all. However, its striking variegated plumage is quite, different from the crow-like coloration of the cormorants : the drake is pied, being below white, with the head, upper back and part of the wings black, the lower back and tail grey, and bright red bill and feet. The head has a green gloss, and the under-parts often show a wash of salmon or apricot colour.
The female is very different, being bright chestnut on the head, which in her is well crested ; French grey above, about heron or pigeon-colour, and white below; the wings are black and white and the legs and bill red, much as in the male, but not so distinct in colour. The male in undress much resembles her. The beak, it will be noticed on close inspection, is set with backward-pointing horny teeth, and has not the wide gape of a cormorant's, and the feet are quite ordinary duck's feet, having the hind-toe short; not large and webbed to the rest like a cormorant's, so useful both as extension of paddle and a perch-grip. The goosander is one of our largest ducks, the male weighing about three pounds, while even four and a half has been recorded ; females are generally less. They are usually very fat, and, according to Hume, will make a good meal if skinned, soaked, and stewed with onions and Worcester sauce, and if one has not got any other form of meat or game available. This is quite likely to happen where goosanders are shot, as their haunts are different from those of ducks in general; they are birds of the hill-streams chiefly, being resident in the Himalayas and merely moving up and down according to season ; in winter they may be found all along the foot of the Himalayas, in northern Burma, the south Assamese hills, and even as far south as the Godavari and Bombay, where E. H. Aitken once shot one on salt water.
Their food is mainly fish, though they eat other live things as well, and in captivity will feed on raw rice freed from the husks ; they are extremely greedy, and will eat over a quarter of a pound of fish at a meal, digesting bones and all. They are therefore not birds to be encouraged where the fishing is valued, and there is likewise this excuse for shooting them, that they are likely to be appreciated by natives who, like our Elizabethan ancestors, like a good strong-tasting bird.
Moreover, they are really sporting birds; they are wary and require careful stalking, and when hit are by no means booked, as they will dive literally to the death. Mr. Baker records a case in which a female, after being hit, managed to keep out of range of his boat, propelled by two men, for half an hour, and then appeared on the surface dead, having died while diving, game to the last. They are naturally fast swimmers as well as good divers, and though they often, when floating quietly, sit nearly as high out of the water as an ordinary duck, also swim low with the tail awash, and when wounded or frightened show only the head and neck above water, much like a cormorant. They also have the cormorant-like habit of sitting erect on the shore, partially expanding their wings, though here again their carriage often level and like that of an ordinary duck. So it is when walking, when they look less awkward than some diving ducks; when running on land, and this they can do well at a pinch, they stand very erect.
They resemble cormorants, too, in often fishing in concert, forming a line across the stream and all diving together, so as to drive the fish before them. Although perhaps preferring the stiller reaches and pools, they are at home in the most rapid and rushing torrents. They are slow in getting on the wing, but fly fast when well up. The note of the drake is a croak like " karr"; of the female a distinct quack.
Although the young, which in the down are brown above, tinged reddish about the head and neck, and marked with a few white patches, and white below, have been taken in the hills, the eggs have not yet been found in India. They are cream-coloured and very smooth, and number over half a dozen. The nest, well-lined with down, is generally in a hole in a tree or bank in the birds' known breeding-places, which extend all round the world in the northern regions, the supposed distinctness of the American race resting on the most trivial characters. The female often carries her young on her back when swimming. It is a curious thing that there seems to be no native name recorded for this most conspicuous species.