Scientific name: Mergus albellus

Did you know: The smew has a unique lineage, being the only living member of its genus Mergellus!

What Do Smews Look Like? (how to identify them)

Smews are distinctive ducks, making them a fascinating subject for observation. 

Male smews are particularly striking with their bold black-and-white plumage, which has earned them the nickname ‘panda ducks’. They exhibit a ‘cracked ice’ appearance, predominantly white with a stark black back, and a distinctive black mask. Their flight reveals contrasting black and white wings. 

Female smews, also known as ‘redheads’, have a more subdued grey body with a chestnut head and a white cheek patch. In flight, they display notable oval white wing-patches. 

Young males and females can be easily mixed up with other species, but the smew’s hooked, serrated bill sets it apart, aiding in its fish-catching endeavours. Measuring about 38-44 cm in length with a wingspan of 55-69 cm, they are relatively small yet robust.

Differences Between Male And Female Smews

Distinguishing between male and female smews is quite straightforward. Males are predominantly white with black markings, presenting a stark contrast, while females sport a grey plumage with a reddish-brown head. 

Both genders share the characteristic white cheek patch, but it’s the male’s striking black-and-white combination that truly sets them apart.

What Do Smews Eat?

Smews have a diet primarily consisting of fish, supplemented with aquatic insects and their larvae. Their serrated bill is perfectly adapted for this diet, allowing them to grasp slippery fish with ease. During different seasons, their diet adjusts, with a greater emphasis on aquatic insects in the summer and small fish in the winter.

Where Do Smews Live? (inc. migration info)

Smews are migratory birds, breeding in the taiga forests of Northern Europe and Russia. They prefer habitats with abundant trees near fish-rich lakes and slow-moving rivers. In winter, they migrate to milder climates, frequently found along sheltered coasts or inland waters in Northern Europe, including a small number in Great Britain. 

Their nesting sites are often tree holes, such as old woodpecker nests. These birds are notably shy, quickly taking flight if disturbed.

Bird Calls & Songs (the unique voices of Smews)

Smews are relatively quiet birds, with their vocalisations being a subtle yet distinctive part of their behaviour. Unfortunately, there are no audio recordings readily available to describe their calls precisely, but observers often note their soft, subtle sounds during interactions.

Fun Smew Facts (kid friendly)

  • Smews are known as ‘panda ducks’ because of the male’s unique black and white colours.
  • They can dive underwater to catch fish, staying submerged for quite a while.
  • Female smews are called ‘redheads’ due to their chestnut-coloured head.
  • Smews nest in tree holes, sometimes using old woodpecker nests.
  • These ducks can be found in the UK during the winter, but they spend summers in Northern Europe and Russia.
  • They are the only existing species in their genus, making them quite special in the bird world.
  • Smew ducklings are brave; they jump from their high nests just a day or two after hatching!
  • The smew’s bill is serrated, like a saw, to help it catch slippery fish.
  • They prefer living near lakes and rivers, where they can find plenty of fish.
  • Smews are known to form small groups but can sometimes be spotted alone.

Facts About The Smew

Diet: Fish, insect larvae and other insects.
Bird Family: Ducks, geese and swans
Length: 36-44 cm
Wingspan: 55-69 cm
Weight: 500-800 g
Scientific Name: Mergus albellus

The Smew Can Be Seen In The UK During The Following Months

  • January
  • February
  • March
  • April
  • November
  • December

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