Bufflehead, Bucephala albeola

The Bufflehead, (Bucephala albeola), is a species of sea duck of the goldeneye family. It was first described by Linnaeus in 1758 as Anas albeola. This is a migratory species with most populations wintering in protected coastal waters, or open inland waters on the east and west coasts of North America as far south as the southern United States. It is an extremely rare vagrant to western Europe. Their breeding habitat is wooded lakes and ponds in Alaska and Canada, almost exclusively included in the boreal forest or taiga habitat.

The name Bufflehead is a combination of buffalo and head, referring to the oddly bulbous head shape of the species. This feature is most noticeable when the male puffs out the feathers on the head, greatly increasing the apparent size of the head.

The Bufflehead is 12.5 to 16 inches long and weighs 9 to 18 ounces, with males larger than females. It is one of the smallest species of American ducks, rivaling the similarly-sized Green-winged Teal. The adult male is a striking black and white, with iridescent green and purple heads with a large white patch behind the eye. The female is gray-toned with a smaller white patch behind the eye and a light-colored underside.

The Bufflehead forages for food underwater by diving at depths up to 15 feet. In freshwater habitats it eats primarily insects. In saltwater it feeds mostly on crustaceans and mollusks. It will also eat aquatic plants and fish eggs when necessary.

The Bufflehead has evolved its small stature in order to fit the nesting cavity made by the Northern Flicker woodpecker species. Due to its small size, it is highly active, undertaking dives almost continuously sustained by its high metabolism. It does not usually form large flocks; and groups are typically limited to small numbers. A single duck serves as a sentry, watching for predators as the others in the group dive in search of food. It is one of the last waterfowl to leave the breeding grounds and finds its wintering grounds within a short amount of time.

The females of this species return to the same breeding site year after year and usually pair with the same breeding males from previous years. They pick nests that are close to water and often compete with Mountain Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, and European Starlings for these nests. There is one recorded instance of a female Barrow’s Goldeneye killing a female Bufflehead and her brood to gain control of a nest. Buffleheads will typically use smaller cavities to deter competition from the larger Goldeneyes.

The female lays 6 to 11 eggs, with 9 being typical. Incubation lasts 30 days. A day after the last duckling hatches the brood leaps from the nest cavity. The young fledge at 50 to 55 days of age. Predators of this species includes weasels, minks, falcons, owls, eagles and hawks.

Buffleheads are one of the most popular birds amongst bird watchers because of their striking plumage, their highly active nature, and of course their close proximity to humans. Mainly for these reasons, it is the first species of duck to be boldly displayed on a Coat of Arms.

Buffleheads are a popular bird in sport hunting, although they are typically too small and gamey to be considered a gamebird. While this bird is threatened mainly by habitat degradation, it has remained fairly widespread within its range and numbers have remained fairly constant. Although Buffleheads can and do use man-made nesting boxes, they still require the forest habitat to thrive.

Image caption: Bufflehead — Humber Bay Park (East), Toronto, Canada — 2006 March. Credit: Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)