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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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Keys to identification Help

Ducks
Ducks
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Bufflehead are very small, compact ducks with large, rounded heads and short, wide bills.

  • Color Pattern

    Adult male Bufflehead have a white body, black back, and a dark head with a large white patch that wraps around the back of the head. Females and first-year males are gray-brown overall with an oval, white cheek patch. In flight adult males have a large white patch on the upperwing; females and first-year males have a smaller white wing patch.

  • Behavior

    Bufflehead dive underwater to catch aquatic invertebrates. When courting females, male Buffleheads swim in front of them, rapidly bobbing their heads up and down. In flight, you can identify Bufflehead by noting their small size, fast wingbeats, and pattern of rocking side-to side as they fly.

  • Habitat

    Bufflehead are most widespread in migration and winter, when they move south to coasts and large bodies of water, particularly shallow saltwater bays. They breed near lakes in northern forests where conifers mix with poplars or aspens. Bufflehead nest in tree cavities, especially old Northern Flicker holes.

Range Map Help

Bufflehead Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Breeding male

    Bufflehead

    Breeding male
    • Small, compact, boldly-patterned duck
    • Bright white underparts contrast with dark back
    • Glossy purple/green on head appears black in indirect or overcast lighting
    • Bright white patch on side/rear of head
    • © Glenn Bartley, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, March 2009
  • Female

    Bufflehead

    Female
    • Very small and comapct
    • Large, rounded head
    • Mostly dull gray: darker on head with small white cheek patch
    • © Bernie Monette, Scarborough, Ontario, Canada, May 2009
  • Breeding male

    Bufflehead

    Breeding male
    • Compact, boldly-patterned duck
    • White patches at bases of wings and on sides of head
    • Iridescent purple/green on forehead and throat appears duller without direct lighting
    • Small, silver/gray bill
    • © Glenn Bartley, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, January 2011
  • Female/Immature male

    Bufflehead

    Female/Immature male
    • Small and stocky with large, rounded head
    • Dull, slaty-gray overall with small white patch on cheek
    • Short, silver-gray bill
    • © Kelly Colgan Azar, Chester County, Pennsylvania, November 2012

Similar Species

  • Breeding male

    Common Goldeneye

    Breeding male
    • Similar to Bufflehead but larger and with more extensive white on wings
    • Glowing yellow eye
    • Black bill
    • Small white patch at base of bill instead of at rear of head
    • © Bill Thompson, Anchorage, Alaska, August 2010
  • Breeding male

    Barrow's Goldeneye

    Breeding male
    • Similar to Bufflehead but larger and more elongated
    • Glowing yellow eye
    • Vertical white crescent mark at base of bill
    • © Bill Thompson, Anchorage, Alaska, April 2010
  • Breeding male

    Hooded Merganser

    Breeding male
    • Bill longer, darker, and thiner than on Bufflehead
    • Rufous/chestnut flanks
    • No iridescence on head
    • © Jay Paredes, Viera, Florida, December 2011
  • Female

    Harlequin Duck

    Female
    • Larger and more heavy-bodied than female Bufflehead
    • Warmer tan/brown instead of colder gray/slate
    • White spot at rear of head and white patch at base of bill
    • Longer, heavier bill
    • © Reynir Skarsgard, Iceland, June 2012
  • Male

    Ruddy Duck

    Male
    • Similar to Bufflehead in size and shape, but rich chestnut/rufous overall
    • Smaller head with black cap and contrasting white cheek patch
    • Larger, broader bill
    • Longer "stiff" tail usually held up at an angle
    • © Roy Brown, Albany, Georgia, March 2011

Similar Species

Adult male Hooded Mergansers have long crests with a larger white head patch than Bufflehead; they also have chestnut-brown, not white, sides. Adult male Common and Barrow's Goldeneyes have a more triangular head with a smaller white spot that is in front of the eye rather than the Bufflehead’s large patch behind the eye. Female and immature Harlequin Ducks have multiple white spots on the face instead of the single cheek spot of a female Bufflehead. Adult male Ruddy Ducks have a large white cheek patch that touches the bill and does not touch the back of the head. Female and young male Ruddy Ducks have a dark line that runs across the large, pale patch on the face.

Backyard Tips

Bufflehead will take up residence in nest boxes during the summer in forested areas of central and western Canada. They’re 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 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.