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What is a Bufflehead Duck?

Alyssa Simon
Alyssa Simon

A bufflehead duck is thought to be one of the smallest ducks in North America. Its name comes from the words buffalo and head, referring to the male duck's ability to ruffle the feathers on its head to increase its size. Bufflehead ducks breed in Alaska and Canada and spend winters on American coastal waters, sometimes flying as far south as the Texas Gulf Coast. They are omnivorous marine animals and live by rivers and streams, where they dive for aquatic plants, insects and small fish.

The scientific name for the bufflehead duck is Bucephala albeola. The males are black and white with purple and green feathers on their heads and large white spots beneath their eyes. A female bufflehead duck has a smaller patch and gray feathers. Bufflehead ducks are thought to be highly active, with a rapid wing beat and fast metabolism. Due to their small size, they are able to achieve flight quickly without having to run along a water's surface first.

Owls are one of the main predators of the bufflehead duck.
Owls are one of the main predators of the bufflehead duck.

The birds are thought to be monogamous and usually keep the same mate for several years. They can breed when they are 2-years-old in the spring season and prefer to nest in cavities of trees often made by woodpeckers. The females can wait up to three days in between laying each egg and can lay six to 11 in a brood. Bufflehead duck eggs incubate for about a month and then remain in the nest for up to 48 hours before learning to search for food on their own. The mother bufflehead duck will leave the ducklings when they are about six weeks old and fully independent.

A bufflehead duck is only thought to be aggressive when the female is protecting her young. Some female ducks with ducklings may fight each other for territory, and the winner can walk off with the loser's brood. Bufflehead ducks are not known to make loud sounds except for when courting. Then, the male makes a low chattering sound described as guttural. A female bufflehead duck can also make clucking sounds when searching for a nesting spot.

Often living in small groups, one or two bufflehead ducks will usually serve as a lookout for owls, falcons and eagles, their main predators, while the others dive for food. The bufflehead duck population is not considered endangered. The main threat to their existence may be loss of their habitat from industrial activity such as land development and oil spillage along coastal waters.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Bufflehead Duck?

The Bufflehead Duck is a small North American sea duck, known for its striking black and white plumage in males and more subdued brown and white in females. They are cavity nesters, often using old woodpecker holes for breeding. Buffleheads are migratory, wintering in coastal bays and protected inlets.

Where can you typically find Bufflehead Ducks?

Bufflehead Ducks breed in wooded lakes and ponds in Alaska and Canada, and during winter, they migrate to the coastal waters of the United States. They prefer habitats with clear water for foraging and dense tree cover for nesting. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, they are also occasionally found in saltwater marshes and open ocean waters.

What do Bufflehead Ducks eat?

Bufflehead Ducks are diving ducks that primarily feed on aquatic invertebrates such as insects, crustaceans, and mollusks. During the breeding season, they may also consume plant material. Their diet varies with season and habitat, but they are adept at foraging underwater, where they spend up to 25 seconds per dive.

How do Bufflehead Ducks reproduce?

Bufflehead Ducks are monogamous and often form pairs before arriving at their breeding grounds. Females lay 5 to 11 eggs in tree cavities, with incubation lasting about 30 days. The ducklings are precocial and leave the nest within a day after hatching, ready to swim and dive, though they remain under the mother's care for several weeks.

Are Bufflehead Ducks endangered?

No, Bufflehead Ducks are not currently endangered. They are considered to be of 'Least Concern' by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Their populations are stable, thanks in part to their adaptability in nesting and foraging habits, as well as conservation efforts that protect their natural habitats.

What are the distinguishing features of male and female Bufflehead Ducks?

Male Bufflehead Ducks are easily recognizable by their bold black and white plumage with iridescent purple and green hues on their heads, and a large white patch behind the eye. Females are more camouflaged, with brownish-gray feathers and a smaller white cheek patch, which helps them blend into their surroundings while nesting.

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    • Owls are one of the main predators of the bufflehead duck.
      Owls are one of the main predators of the bufflehead duck.