Now that’s a hell of a name for a bird. Seriously. Smew. Work it around in your mouth a little; taste it. Say it five times in a row. Even extremely prosiac words like “gasket” get a bit surreal when you do that; “Smew” becomes music. It becomes the cry of a bird flying out of sight in the clouds over the water, which is the ultimate music.
Conveniently for my romantic imaginings, the Smew is a bird of the water. In fact, it is a sort of duck, generally held to be the not-at-all-missing link between the mergansers and the goldeneyes*. Like the merganser, the Smew has a bill with serrations to make up for the teeth that birds lost long ago.
Adult male Smews in their glory are stark black and white; the females and young ones have a gray-and-rust color scheme a bit reminiscent of an eclipse Ruddy Duck.
I’ve never seen a Smew. Any Smew seen on the east coast of the United States is regarded with great suspicion on the grounds of maybe being an escapee from captivity.
John James Audubon made the Smew the occasion of both a painting and a smack-down:
“The Smew is a bird of extremely rare occurrence in the United States, insomuch that it must be considered merely as a transient or accidental visiter. Indeed I have felt strong misgivings on reading WILSON’S article on this species, and cannot but think that he is mistaken when he states that it “is much more common on the coast of New England than farther south;” and again “in the ponds of New England, and some of the lakes in the State of New York, where the Smew is frequently observed–.” Now, although I have made diligent inquiry, not only in New England, but in every part of our country where I thought it likely that the Smew might occur, I have not met with any person well acquainted with birds of this family, who has seen it. WILSON, in short, was in all probability misinformed, and it is my opinion that his figure was made from a stuffed European specimen which was then in Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia, and that he had taken the Buffel-headed Duck, seen at a distance, for this species, as I am aware has been the case with other individuals.”
Of course Audubon got his Smew in New Orleans, which also seems weird.
*James Bond was named after a bird guide author, you know.