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Common Goldeneye Life History


Lakes and PondsCommon 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.Back to top


Aquatic invertebrates

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, spatterdock, and bulrush. These aggressive ducks dominate most other duck species when competing for feeding areas.

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Nest Placement

CavityThe 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.

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.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:4-9 eggs
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
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.
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Surface DiveCommon 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. Back to top


Low Concern

Common Goldeneye are numerous, and their population held steady between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Population trends are difficult to estimate as much of the Common Goldeneye breeding range occurs north of the survey's limits, but Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 2.5 million individuals and rates them 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. In 2019 and 2020, between 85,000 and 100,000 goldeneyes (both Common and Barrow Goldeneye species combined) were 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.

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Corrigan, R. M., G. J. Scrimgeour and C. Paszkowski. (2011). Nest boxes facilitate local-scale conservation of Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) and Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) in Alberta, Canada. Avian Conservation and Ecology 6 (1):6-19.

Eadie, John M., Mark L. Mallory and H. G. Lumsden. (1995). Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), 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. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Raftovich, R. V., K. K. Fleming, S. C. Chandler, and C. M. Cain (2021). Migratory bird hunting activity and harvest during the 2019–20 and 2020-21 hunting seasons. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

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

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