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Common Goldeneye


IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The male Common Goldeneye adds a bright note to winter days with its radiant amber eye, glistening green-black head, and crisp black-and-white body and wings. The female has a chocolate brown head with the same bright eye that gives this species its name. These distinctively shaped, large-headed ducks dive for their food, eating mostly aquatic invertebrates and fish. They nest in tree cavities in the boreal forest of Canada and Alaska; look for them on large rivers, lakes, and Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts in winter.

At a GlanceHelp

Both Sexes
15.7–20.1 in
40–51 cm
30.3–32.7 in
77–83 cm
21.2–45.9 oz
600–1300 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Green-winged Teal; smaller than a Common Merganser
Other Names
  • Garrot commun, Garrot à oeil d'or (French)
  • Porrón osculado (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Hunters dubbed the Common Goldeneye the “whistler” for the distinctive whistling sound of its wings in flight. Cold weather accentuates the sound.
  • A female Common Goldeneye often lays eggs in the nest of another female, especially in nest boxes. She may lay in the nests of other species of ducks as well. Common and Barrow's goldeneyes lay in each other's nests, and Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers often lay in the goldeneye's nest too.
  • Like Wood Ducks, Common Goldeneyes readily use nest boxes as a stand-in for naturally occurring tree cavities. Some return to the same box year after year.
  • Goldeneye chicks leave the nest just one day after they hatch. The first step can be a doozy, with nests placed in tree cavities up to 40 feet high. As the female stands at the base of the tree and calls, the downy chicks jump from the nest hole one after the other and tumble to the ground.
  • After the ducklings leave the nest they can feed themselves and require only protection. Some females abandon their broods soon after hatching, and the young will join another female's brood. Such mixed broods, known as "creches," may also occur when a female loses some ducklings after a territorial fight with another female. Young scatter and mix when females fight, and not all of them get back to their mother when the fight ends. Some or all of the ducklings may be transferred to one brood, usually that of the territory owner.
  • The eyes of a Common Goldeneye are gray-brown at hatching. They turn purple-blue, then blue, then green-blue as they age. By five months of age they have become clear pale green-yellow. The eyes will be bright yellow in adult males and pale yellow to white in females.
  • In winter and early spring, male Common Goldeneyes perform a complex series of courtship displays that includes up to 14 moves with names like “masthead,” “bowsprit,” and “head throw kick,” in which the male bends his head back to touch his rump, then thrusts forward and kicks up water with his feet.
  • The oldest known Common Goldeneye was a male, and at least 20 years, 5 months based. He was banded and found in Minnesota.



Common Goldeneyes breed mainly in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, with smaller numbers in North Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, and the Northeast. They nest in holes in trees near lakes, rivers, or wetlands. Typical breeding sites feature lakes with abundant invertebrate prey and clear water offering good visibility and little emergent vegetation, although they may feed in stands of bulrush. Migrating birds stop to feed on large lakes and rivers en route to their main wintering areas along the coasts. In winter, look for Common Goldeneyes in shallow coastal bays, estuaries, and harbors along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts that offer good foraging sites: sand, gravel, rock, and boulder substrates supporting mollusks and crustaceans. In the interior, wintering flocks gather on large lakes and rivers as far north as open water occurs, and in ice-free areas created by industrial or power-generator discharge of warm water.



Common Goldeneyes eat mainly aquatic invertebrates, fish, and fish eggs, with vegetation such as seeds and tubers making up less than a quarter of the diet. They feed mainly along shorelines in relatively shallow water (less than 13 feet), although will sometimes forage in water more than 20 feet deep. Common Goldeneyes eat crustaceans and mollusks, including crabs, shrimp, crayfish, amphipods, barnacles, and mussels, along with insect prey such as caddisfly larvae, water boatmen, beetles, and nymphs of dragonfly, damselfly, and mayfly. They also eat sticklebacks, sculpin, minnows, and young salmon and salmon eggs. Vegetation in their diet includes the seeds of pondweeds, scatterdock, and bulrush. These aggressive ducks dominate most other duck species when competing for feeding areas.


Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
4–9 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
2.3–2.4 in
5.8–6 cm
Egg Width
1.3–1.9 in
3.4–4.9 cm
Incubation Period
27–33 days
Nestling Period
1 days
Egg Description
Greenish, ranging from bluish green to olive-green.
Condition at Hatching
Alert, fully covered in black and white down, eyes open, ready to leave the nest within a day or two.
Nest Description

The female uses material already in the nest cavity such as wood chips or an old squirrel nest to form a nest bowl, then plucks down feathers from her breast to make an insulating lining. The finished nest averages 8 inches across, with nesting cavity depths ranging from 8 to 47 inches.

Nest Placement


The female Common Goldeneye selects a cavity in a live or dead tree for her nest. Nest sites include holes created by Pileated Woodpeckers, cavities where limbs have broken away, or “chimneys” at the top of standing trees. They also readily use nest boxes, preferring those with dark interiors and wood shavings for nesting material. Experienced breeders return to the same nesting area—and often the same nest, either a natural cavity or nest box—year after year.


Surface Dive

Common Goldeneyes are compact, fast-flying ducks that reach speeds of over 40 miles an hour. In flight their wings make a distinctive whistling noise. Unlike many diving ducks, they only need to run or “patter” a short 3 to 6 feet across the water before taking off. These strong swimmers and divers spend much of their time on the water, often in flocks of 4 to 40 (and up to several hundred) birds. The birds dive frequently in search of prey, and often synchronize their dives with others. Underwater they hold their wings tight to their bodies and kick with their feet. Dives last up to a minute. In winter, Common Goldeneyes form small courtship groups where males perform elaborate displays. The female responds with her own displays, most often the “head-forward” when she lowers her head and neck and swings it forward. Monogamous pairs form between early December and April, and the pair stays together until the male abandons the female early in the incubation period. On the breeding grounds, the male combines threat displays and direct chases to defend both his mate and breeding territory from other Common Goldeneyes. They also defend their territory from Barrow’s Goldeneyes and Bufflehead where breeding grounds overlap. Once chicks hatch and take to the water, the female defends a brood territory from other Common Goldeneyes, including their ducklings.


status via IUCN

Least Concern

Common Goldeneye are numerous. The North American Breeding Bird Survey estimates that between 1966 and 2014 populations were stable or gradually increased, however, population trends are difficult to estimate as much of the Common Goldeneye breeding range occurs north of the survey's limits. Common Goldeneye are not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. In recent years, between 85,000 and 90,000 goldeneyes (both Common and Barrow Goldeneye species combined) have been shot by hunters annually. Like other cavity-nesting birds, Common Goldeneyes depend on forestry practices that retain dead trees on the landscape. Nest boxes have been used to reestablish populations in areas with few nesting trees. Threats to wintering sites include loss of coastal and interior wetlands, river channelization, and increased sediment loads due to agricultural and industrial practices that affect foraging areas.


Range Map Help

Common Goldeneye Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings


Medium-distance migrant. Western-breeding birds move to the Pacific coast along Oregon and California, and eastern breeders move to the Atlantic coast. Some individuals winter on large inland lakes and rivers. In fall they migrate late, as lakes are freezing up; they are early migrants in spring.

Backyard Tips

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. 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

Common Goldeneyes breed in the boreal forest, so winter is the best time for most people in North America to see them. Look for them in flocks on fairly large bodies of water. Most goldeneyes winter on protected coastal waters, but you can still find them fairly readily on inland lakes as well. In fall they are late migrants, often coming through just as lakes are freezing. Look for their distinctively shaped heads and the bright yellow eye that is visible from a surprisingly long way off. The birds may abruptly disappear as they dive for food, but keep your eye on them as they tend to surface after about a minute or so.

You Might Also Like

What to Watch For: Duck Courtship [video], All About Birds blog, January 20, 2015.



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