Thom Smith | Naturewatch: Duck, duck, goose? All in a name — mergansers, goosanders


Q: I really appreciate your nature column that we see in the Bennington Banner, but this morning the photo and caption above your column has me baffled. Nowhere online or in any of my bird books do I see goosegander as a combined word. Did the photographer/caption writer misunderstand merganser and substitute goosegander? And I believe a merganser is not a duck.

— Carolyn, North Bennington, Vt.

A: Well, actually in print, it was written as goosander, which is correct.

Mergansers, regardless of what name we give them, are ducks, although I most often collectively just call them waterfowl. Four species are found in North America, including the common merganser (the subject of this question), red-breasted merganser, hooded merganser, and smew (a foreign visitor). All are diving, fish-eating ducks, adapted for "fishing" underwater. They all have a long narrow bill with serrated edges resembling backward-projecting teeth that help them to hold on to their slippery catch. Because of this, some refer to mergansers as "sawbills."

The most widely used common name for Mergus merganser today is Common Merganser or simply, merganser. In a 1904 bird guide by Ralph Hoffmann, the name is listed as American Merganser, Goosander and Sheldrake. In a 1900 bird guide by Walter Faxon and Ralph Hoffmann it is named American Goosander, and yet earlier, in an 1870 edition by Edward Samuels, it is listed as Goosander; Sheldrake; Fish Duck. John James Audubon used the name Buff-breasted Merganser and Goosander in his Birds of America.

Goosander is the English translation given it in Europe, even though it does not resemble a goose.

Un-wanted alien plants continues

The number of "weeds" that threaten our landscape is, indeed, a long one with new ones encroaching every day. Here are several that are probably here to stay unless we all work toward eradication:

• Purple Loosestrife is devouring our wetlands at an astonishing rate, and although many find it beautiful, it forms impenetrable mats where few other plant species can compete. The plant itself should be removed immediately when first noticed because it is nearly impossible to exterminate otherwise. Each plant produces up to 2 million seeds each year, so saving just one plant because of its good looks, is asking for trouble.

• Honeysuckles. Soon roadsides and edges of clearings abundant shrubs will be the source of fragrant white, pink and cream flowers, the honeysuckles. Japanese honeysuckle and its large, often cream-colored, fragrant flowers that occur in pairs that later in the season will produce black, fleshy berries in pairs is becoming more abundant. It is a climbing variety and is moving north and has become a localized problem in Massachusetts and is banned even in New Hampshire and upstate New York, so I can only assume it is already making inroads into Vermont. The vine chokes trees and shrubs. Once established, it is very difficult to eradicate. Other honeysuckles such as Morrow's, the most pervasive in Massachusetts and can be distinguished from Titarian honeysuckle (not as invasive) by hairy leaves and shreddy bark. Honeysuckles are spread mostly by birds. And in some places it is still legal to sell certain varieties.

• Goutweed or Bishop's Weed is a shade-tolerant ground cover that readily escapes gardens. Granted, it is attractive plant having variegated leaves with broad white borders. Another variety has all green leaves. Many years ago a friend asked me for a few plants for his mom's garden. It not only established itself but today is overflowing into the neighbor's yard. It spreads by underground rhizomes and even a small piece can produce a new plant, and is difficult to exterminate, as it crowds out other garden plants and moves to natives.

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions