Bufflehead Life History

Habitat

Habitat Lakes and PondsBufflehead 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. Back to top

Food

Food Aquatic invertebratesBufflehead 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.Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest CavityBufflehead 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.

Nest Description

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

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size:4-17 eggs
Egg Description:Cream-colored or buff; unmarked.
Back to top

Behavior

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 ducklings 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 of Buffleheads intrudes into a nearby territory, the male that owns the territory often chases the intruding female and her mate follows them in hot pursuit. 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).

Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Low ConcernBufflehead populations are stable and despite indication of declines in some areas, overall their population increased between 1966 and 2014 according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. They are not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. 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. Back to top

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.

Back to top

Credits

Bellrose, F. C. 1976a. Ducks, geese and swans of North America. 2 ed. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

Gauthier, Gilles. 2014. Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Raftovich, R. V., K. A. Wilkins, S. S. Williams and H. L. Spriggs. 2012a. Migratory bird hunting activity and harvest during the 2010 and 2011 hunting seasons. Laurel: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxtent Wildlife Research Center 2014b. Available from http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

Back to top