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Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) Photo by Arie Ouwerkerk

Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) Photo by Arie Ouwerkerk

One of my friends on the internet just now took to social media to challenge the world with the following truism: “Try as hard as you want, but you can’t make a duck look badass.” I don’t know what prompted this outburst (!) but I am willing to bet it had something to do with one of the abominable duck mascots which fill professional and semi-professional sports leagues with Howard the Duck-esque ugliness and horror (and, indeed, these doofy mascots never manage to look badass, no matter how hard the designers try).

Behold the blood red eyes and needle beak! (photo by birdingmaine.com)

Behold the blood red eyes and needle beak! (photo by birdingmaine.com)

Fortunately a greater force than the University of Oregon has taken up this challenge—and with much greater success. The red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator) is a duck which lives throughout Siberia, Scandinavia, Scotland, Greenland, Iceland, Scotland, and the northern fastnesses of Canada (i.e. Canada). The predatory duck can sometimes be seen overwintering along the East and West coasts of America, the Chinese coast, Japan, the Koreas, England, Western Europe, or on the lakes and Inland Seas of Central Asia. In retrospect, the red-breasted merganser’s range includes most of the northern hemisphere except for the tropics and the extreme north—which should give you a clue as to what a badass the duck truly is. The ducks fly north in summer to breed on lakes, rivers, and coasts. In winter they live in coastal waters or in the open ocean.

Red Breasted Mergansers relaxing in their warm winter home--Lake Erie

Red Breasted Mergansers relaxing in their warm winter home–the open waters of Lake Erie (photo by Jim McCormac)

Merganser serrator has a ferocious appearance. The male has a black spikey crest, blood-red eyes, and a pointy black beak filled with needle sharp serrations (with a hook at the end). Oh, also his feet are incarnadine color with razor claws. The female has a similar shape, but her head is drab colored and she does not have the bright white ringneck and signal feathers of the male. The ducks are entirely predatory—they only eat living things. The adults catch all sorts of small water creatures including aquatic arthropods, amphibians, mollusks, and worms, but most of all they live on fish. The ducks dive down into the water and hunt the fish directly, so they are stupendous swimmers.

Mergansers desport amorously (photo by Marco Valentini)

Mergansers disport amorously (photo by Marco Valentini)

The ducks brood between 5 and 13 eggs. A day after they hatch the nestlings take to the water…and to the hunt! Ducklings feed themselves without help from their parents, although they tend to eat aquatic insect larvae and tadpoles (at first). To recapitulate, the red-breasted merganser lives in Siberia and North Korea or on the open ocean. It eats only living things which are caught and swallowed alive and whole into its inescapable mouth of needles. Make fun of mascots, all you like, but respect the living sawbills!

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A smew hunting underwater (by DianneB1960)

A smew hunting underwater (by DianneB1960)

The National Zoo in Washington D.C. has a duck pond over by the parking lot entrance.  There are numerous pretty North American ducks in the pond as well as mute swans from Europe, black swans from Australia, and various fancy ducks from around the globe–but these beautiful waterfowl pale in comparison to lions, pandas, and elephants–so visitors are inclined to rapidly push by the little lake.  One day (when I too was rushing by) I noticed a ghostly white presence flitting around the bottom of the pond.  At first I thought I was hallucinating and then I thought that a penguin or puffin had escaped the Arctic area.  It was an amazingly dexterous aquatic hunter swimming underwater hunting for small fish.  I watched for some time before it popped to the surface and revealed itself to be…a male smew!

Smew Drake (Mergellus albellus) from http://birds-ath.blogspot.com

Smew Drake (Mergellus albellus) from http://birds-ath.blogspot.com

Smews (Mergellus albellus) are the world’s smallest merganser ducks.  They may seem alien because, for modern birds, they are ancient. Fossils of smews have been found in England which date back to 2 million years ago.   The smew is last surviving member of the genus Mergellus—which includes fossil seaducks from the middle Miocene (approximately 13 million years ago).  Smews breed along the northern edge of the great Boreal forests of Europe and Asia.  During winter they fly south to England, Holland, Germany, the Baltic Sea, & the Black Sea.  Like other Mersangers, smews are hunters: they dive underwater and deftly swim down fish (showing ballet-like grace during the process).  Like many other sorts of piscivorous hunters, smews have heavily serrated beaks (which are further specialized with a wicked hooked tip).

Smew party (Norman McCanch, 2011, oil)

Smew party (Norman McCanch, 2011, oil)

The drake smew has been poetically described as having the combined appearance of cracked ice and a panda.  Female smew ducks are plainer—they have gray bodies, chestnut crowns and faces, and a white neck. Although smews are from an ancient lineage and live in a difficult part of the world, they are still not doing badly.  Their numbers have declined somewhat, but they are not endangered (which is good news because they are very lovely and captivating).

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