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Barrow's Goldeneye Life History


Lakes and Ponds

Barrow’s Goldeneyes breed on shallow freshwater lakes in subalpine and alpine settings, beaver ponds, and small sloughs, usually in coniferous or aspen woodlands, at elevations up to about 6,100 feet. Breeding lakes must be near treed areas in order for the birds to find nesting sites. In Quebec, they use lakes in forests of black spruce, balsam fir, and white birch. Most Barrow’s Goldeneyes winter on sheltered saltwater habitats such as bays, harbors, or inlets, often near mussel beds. Many also remain in interior rivers and lakes if they stay unfrozen. They favor shallower waters than Common Goldeneyes. Much of the eastern population winters in the St. Lawrence River estuary, in areas of open water. During migration, Barrow’s in the Pacific Northwest sometimes congregate near the coast during the early spring herring spawn, or in small flocks on interior as the birds wait for lakes to thaw farther north.

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Aquatic invertebrates

Barrow’s Goldeneyes eat mainly aquatic invertebrates. Their diet changes sharply throughout the year. During the breeding season, they feed heavily on insect larvae, especially of damselfly, dragonfly, mayfly, caddisfly, water boatman, and backswimmer species. They also take isopods, amphipods, and crayfish. When diving to forage, they often dislodge small rocks in pursuit of prey. Vegetation such as wild celery, rushes, sedges, and pondweed makes up less than a fifth of their summer diet. During winter, mollusks dominate the diet, especially blue mussels and periwinkles, but they also take small fish such as sculpins. Barrow’s Goldeneyes often bring food to the surface before consuming it, especially the larger prey items eating in winter. Like other diving ducks, they eat fish eggs whenever available, usually in late winter or spring.

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Nest Placement


The female selects the nest cavity, often reusing the cavity from the previous year, especially if that nest was successful. Most nests are in dead trees near water, but some nest more than a mile from the nearest water. Nests range from about 6 feet to 48 feet above the ground. Old woodpecker cavities are commonly used, as well as nests in hollow tops of trees, in rock crevices, and even haylofts. The species readily uses nest boxes.

Nest Description

The female does all nest maintenance. She makes the nest from whatever material is left from the cavity’s previous occupant, to which she adds breast feathers.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:6-12 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:2.2-2.8 in (5.7-7 cm)
Egg Width:1.6-1.9 in (3.96-4.72 cm)
Incubation Period:29-31 days
Egg Description:

Glossy greenish.

Condition at Hatching:

Covered with down, eyes open. Leave nest within two days after hatching.

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Surface Dive

Males begin courtship in December, usually when in small flocks. Scientists describe at least six basic displays (known as head-turning, head-flick, neck-withdrawing, kick, rotary-pumping, and ticking), which the birds may carry out in an order, or sometimes singly. The most memorable move is the kick, in which the male raises the head and slowly lowers it over the back, his bill facing skyward: he gives a call and then kicks both feet back, propelling him forward in this odd pose. More often observed is rotary-pumping, in which the male moves his head back and forth, tracing an arc. A female might respond favorably with her own set of courtship displays that also involve distinctive head motions. Pairs also perform a complex series of displays together, both before and after copulation. Wintering pairs sometimes defend small territories along stretches of shoreline. Once paired, Barrow’s Goldeneyes are usually monogamous, and the male defends the female through egg-laying, after which he departs. Males defend a territory around their mate at the breeding lake, chasing and attacking any male that approaches. Females defend a brood territory, even attacking ducklings that come too near her brood.

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Low Concern

Owing to the species’ remote breeding habitat, Barrow’s Goldeneye population trends are difficult to estimate with precision. The North American Breeding Bird Survey estimates the population was stable or declining between 1968 and 2015. However, more localized surveys in Alaska and eastern Canada in the 1980s indicate declines. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 180,000 and rates the species a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. In 1999, the eastern Canada population was estimated at only 4,000 breeding individuals. Climate change and pollution are threats to this species. As a species that nests in tree cavities, it is also vulnerable to timber extraction, especially in western North America, where more than 90% of the world population nests.

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Eadie, John M., Jean-Pierre L. Savard and Mark L. Mallory. (2000). Barrow's Goldeneye (Bucephala islandica), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Hodges, J. I. (1991). Alaska waterfowl production surveys 1991. Juneau, AK: Migratory Bird Manage. U.S. Fish Wildl. Serv.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Savard, J. P. L. and P. Dupuis. (1999). "A case for concern? The Eastern population of Barrow's Goldeneyes (Bucephala islandica)." In Behavior and ecology of sea ducks., edited by R. I. Goudie, M. R. Petersen and G. J. Robertson, 65-76. Ottawa, ON: Occas. Pap. 100, Can. Wildl. Serv.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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