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Bufflehead

Bucephala albeola ORDER: ANSERIFORMES FAMILY: ANATIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A buoyant, large-headed duck that abruptly vanishes and resurfaces as it feeds, the tiny Bufflehead spends winters bobbing in bays, estuaries, reservoirs, and lakes. Males are striking black-and white from a distance. A closer look at the head shows glossy green and purple setting off the striking white patch. Females are a subdued gray-brown with a neat white patch on the cheek. Bufflehead nest in old woodpecker holes, particularly those made by Northern Flickers, in the forests of northern North America.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
12.6–15.7 in
32–40 cm
Wingspan
21.7 in
55 cm
Weight
9.6–22.4 oz
272–635 g
Relative Size
Smaller than a Common Goldeneye; larger than a Pied-billed Grebe.
Other Names
  • Petit Garrot (French)
  • Pato chillón chico (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Bufflehead nests almost exclusively in holes excavated by Northern Flickers and, on occasion, by Pileated Woodpeckers.
  • Unlike most ducks, the Bufflehead is mostly monogamous, often remaining with the same mate for several years.
  • Bufflehead fossils from the late Pleistocene (about 500,000 years ago) have been found in Alaska, California, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Texas, and Washington. One California fossil that resembles a modern Bufflehead dates to the late Pliocene, two million years ago.
  • Bufflehead normally live only in North America, but in winter they occasionally show up elsewhere, including Kamchatka, Japan, Greenland, Iceland, the British Isles, Belgium, France, Finland, and Czechoslovakia. In some of these cases, the birds may have escaped from captivity.
  • The oldest Bufflehead on record was at least 18 years and 8 months old. It was caught and re-released by a bird bander in New York in 1975.

Habitat


Lake/Pond

Bufflehead breed near ponds and lakes in boreal forest and aspen parkland of Canada and Alaska, with isolated populations in the western United States. The Bufflehead’s breeding range is limited by the distribution of Northern Flickers, which are their main source of nesting cavities. Bufflehead are North America’s smallest diving duck; they benefit by using old flicker nests that larger ducks such as goldeneyes and mergansers cannot fit into. In winter they occur mainly near the coast (although they can be found in smaller numbers inland). They use shallow, sheltered coves, harbors, estuaries, or beaches, avoiding open coastlines. Inland, they use ponds, lakes, impoundments, or bays along slow-moving rivers. During spring migration they spend time on major rivers or valley lakes, often in the first spots to become free of ice.

Food


Insects

Bufflehead dive for aquatic invertebrates, crustaceans, and mollusks. They typically swallow their food while still underwater. Dives last on average about 12 seconds and rarely more than 25 seconds, typically staying on the surface another 12 seconds or so before diving again. Bufflehead forage in open, shallow water over sparse submerged vegetation or over mudflats that would be exposed at low tide. On freshwater they mostly eat damselfly and dragonfly larvae, midge larvae, water boatmen, mayfly larvae, caddisfly larvae, large zooplankton such as amphipods, and snails and clams in winter. They eat some plant matter in fall and winter, mainly seeds of pondweeds and bulrushes. In saltwater, Bufflehead eat shrimp, crabs, amphipods, isopods, snails, mussels, herring eggs, sculpins, and ratfishes. Downy ducklings sometimes dabble at the surface rather than diving.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
4–17 eggs
Egg Description
Cream-colored or buff; unmarked.
Nest Description

Nest in tree cavity or nest box, lined with downy feathers from chest of female.

Nest Placement

Cavity

Bufflehead nest only in cavities, using holes dug by Northern Flickers and sometimes Pileated Woodpeckers (as well as artificial nest boxes). In the summer, females that are too young to breed, or whose nests have failed, fly around in noisy groups and scope out the available nest holes for the following breeding season. Just before laying, females make more secretive flights to prospective holes, either alone or with their mates. They usually choose cavities in poplar or aspen trees, except in California where they often use pine trees.

Behavior


Surface Dive

Bufflehead swim buoyantly, dive easily, and take flight by running a short distance on the surface. They fly low over the water and higher over the land. To dive, Bufflehead compress their plumage to squeeze out air, then give a slight forward leap and plunge powerfully downward. They hold their wings tightly against their bodies underwater and use only their feet to propel themselves. At the end of a dive, they may bob to the surface like a cork. Throughout the day they alternate between bouts of feeding, swimming alertly, preening, and sleeping. Bufflehead are seldom seen on dry land: females walk only when they lead their broods from the nest to the water or when they’re forced to switch ponds with their ducklings. Males court females by flying over them, skiing to a stop on the water with their crests raised, and bobbing their heads. During the breeding season, territorial birds attack intruders by flying or swimming underwater at them and thrashing at them with their wings. When a pair intrudes into a territory, the territorial male often chases the intruding female while the intruding male chases after them both. Males leave their mates during incubation in order to molt, but return to the same mate multiple years in a row (one of the few duck species in which this is true).

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

In the early twentieth century Bufflehead had become scarce from overshooting, but they recovered under the protection of the Migratory Birds Convention between the United States and Canada. Christmas Bird Counts show a steady increase in Bufflehead numbers between 1927 and 1992, with an overall population estimate of some 1.4 million Bufflehead in 1992. The Bufflehead’s tendency to winter near to shore along coastlines tends to put it within range of hunters. Duck hunting is carefully managed to maintain populations; nevertheless between 200,000 and 250,000 are shot per year in the U.S. and Canada combined. Bufflehead are also losing nest sites as loggers clear-cut boreal forest, and as agricultural fields replace aspen parklands in western North America. Putting up nest boxes with small (2.5-inch diameter) openings in appropriate habitat can help.

Credits

Range Map Help

Bufflehead Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Medium-distance migrant. Bufflehead that breed west of the Rockies migrate to the Pacific Coast, while those that breed in central Canada migrate east or south. Bufflehead in Alberta split up entirely, with some heading east, some west, and some toward the Gulf Coast and the Southwest.

Backyard Tips

Bufflehead will take up residence in nest boxes during the summer in forested areas of central and western Canada. Consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Bufflehead are more likely to choose a small box (6 x 6 x 15 inches) with a 2.5-inch-diameter opening than a large box (7 x 7 x 15 inches or bigger) with a larger opening. Find out more about nest boxes on our Attract Birds pages. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.

Find This Bird

During the winter, look for these tiny, black-and-white ducks in sheltered coves along the Atlantic or Pacific coast, or on inland ponds in southern North America. While foraging they spend half their time underwater, so scan carefully and patiently. In the summer you can visit their breeding grounds near lakes in the boreal forest and aspen parklands of central Canada.