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8 Fascinating Facts About the Bufflehead Duck

The Bufflehead, scientifically known as Bucephala albeola, is a small, strikingly patterned duck species that inhabit freshwater ponds, lakes, and rivers throughout North America. With its diminutive size and unique plumage, the Bufflehead is a favorite among birdwatchers and nature lovers alike.

In this article, we will discuss the identification of the Bufflehead, its similar species, and the different plumages and molts it goes through.


Field Identification

The Bufflehead is a small duck, comparable in size to a pigeon, with a length of 12-15 inches and a wingspan of 20-22 inches. It is an unmistakable species with sharply contrasting black and white plumage that exhibit clear delineations.

The male has a large white patch on the back of the head that extends to the neck and swoops downwards to the breast. The rest of its plumage is black, excluding the white wing patches and flanks.

The female Bufflehead, on the other hand, is slightly smaller and has a gray-brown body, with a whitish patch on the cheek line that extends to the neck.

Similar Species

The Bufflehead can sometimes be mistaken for other duck species, especially when seen from a distance. Its closest look-alike is the Goldeneye, a larger duck species with similar plumage.

The male Goldeneye, however, has a larger head, more extensive white patches on its body, and lacks the Bufflehead’s distinct white patch on the back of its head. The female Goldeneye is also more massive and has a browner head and gray bill than the Bufflehead.

Other duck species that might be confused with the Bufflehead include the Common and Barrow’s Goldeneyes, although they have significant differences in their plumage.


Buffleheads go through several molts throughout their lives, and the plumage of individual ducks varies depending on age and sex. Here are the plumages seen in Buffleheads:

– Basic Plumage:

This is the plumage most commonly observed in Buffleheads during the breeding season.

In male Buffleheads, it appears like a black and white tuxedo, while female Buffleheads have a gray-brown body with white cheek patches. – Alternate Plumage:

Male Buffleheads develop alternate plumage during the breeding season when they replace their body feathers with more colorful ones.

During this period, the white cheek patches become more prominent, and the black plumage on the back elongates, often covering the neck. – Eclipse Plumage:

Buffleheads go through a molting process in late summer and early fall, during which they replace their body feathers.

The resulting plumage is a duller version that lacks the white patch on the back of the male’s head. Female Buffleheads during eclipse plumage look similar to their basic plumage, but the white cheek patches are more pronounced.

– Juvenile Plumage:

Bufflehead chicks have a distinctive brown and white striped pattern that becomes more subdued as the chicks grow older. Young male Buffleheads will develop dark plumage around the face, neck, and breast.


The Bufflehead is an intriguing duck species that easily stands out with its stark black and white plumage. While similar to other duck species, its distinct coloring, small size, and unique white patch on the back of the male’s head make it an eye-catching bird that enthralls birdwatchers.

Understanding the different plumages and molts of the Bufflehead not only deepens our appreciation of these waterfowl but also allows us to spot the subtler variations that make each individual unique.

Systematics History

The Bufflehead is a member of the diving duck family Anatidae. This family includes various ducks that are adapted to diving to great depths to find food.

The Bufflehead, considered by some to be a “miniature” diving duck, has undergone several changes in its systematics history over the years.

Geographic Variation

Bufflehead ducks have a circumpolar distribution and can be found in North America, Europe, and Asia, with some populations remaining year-round in certain areas. Due to this vast range, different populations of Buffleheads often display varying characteristics.

These characteristics can include differences in size, feather coloration, and patterns.


Currently, there are three recognized subspecies of Bufflehead ducks. The first of these is the North American Bufflehead, also known as Bucephala albeola albeola.

This subspecies ranges from eastern Alaska to Atlantic Canada and is the most common subspecies encountered in North America. The second subspecies is the Western Bufflehead or Bucephala albeola Borealis.

This subspecies breeds in areas throughout the Alaskan coast and then throughout inland Alaska southward to northwestern British Columbia. The Western Bufflehead is slightly larger than the Eastern Bufflehead, but their plumage is relatively similar.

The third subspecies is the Siberian Bufflehead, also known as Bucephala albeola saturata. This subspecies breeds in northeastern Asia, including eastern Siberia and Kamchatka.

It is rare to see this subspecies in North America, although there have been a few sightings within the Aleutian Islands.

Related Species

The closest living relative to the Bufflehead is the Goldeneye duck. The Bufflehead and the Goldeneye share the same genus, Bucephala, and are closely similar in size and shape.

The two species also have a similar breeding range, with both breeding in Alaska and other northern areas.

Historical Changes to Distribution

Over time, the range and distribution of the Bufflehead have undergone significant changes. For example, during the last ice age, the Bufflehead’s breeding range extended southward into the continental United States, far outside of its current range.

However, as the glaciers receded, the Bufflehead’s range contracted northward. In the 19th century, the Bufflehead was hunted heavily for its feathers, which were used to make pillows and mattresses.

The hunting pressure, combined with habitat destruction, resulted in a significant decline in Bufflehead populations. However, with the establishment of wildlife refuges and protections, populations have rebounded and stabilized.

In recent years, the range of the Bufflehead has expanded southward in response to changing landscapes and environments. For example, in the western United States, the Bufflehead has been observed in areas where it had never been seen before.

This expansion is in part due to the establishment of wetlands and reservoirs, which provide new habitats for the species.


The systematics history of the Bufflehead is complex and includes a wide range of geographic variation, subspecies, and related species. Furthermore, the range and distribution of the Bufflehead have undergone significant changes throughout history, including expansions and contractions.

Despite the challenges that the Bufflehead has faced in the past, the species has rebounded due to conservation efforts and habitat management, and continues to thrive today. Understanding the systematics and historical changes to distribution of this beautiful duck species is important for conservation and management efforts in the future.


The Bufflehead is a migratory bird that breeds in the forests of North America and Siberia during the summer months. Its preferred breeding habitat is wooded swamps, ponds, and small lakes that provide cover for nesting and food resources.

During the non-breeding season, Buffleheads can often be found in coastal marine environments, including bays, inlets, and estuaries. Here, they can find an abundance of food, including clams, mussels, and small fish.

Although Buffleheads prefer freshwater habitats, they are also found in a variety of saline habitats, including coastal lagoons and estuaries. In these coastal habitats, Buffleheads often form large flocks, which can number in the thousands.

This is because these larger bodies of water provide the birds with access to a more significant amount of food.

Movements and Migration

Buffleheads are migratory birds, and their movement patterns are entirely dependent on seasonal changes and food availability. They migrate over long distances to breed in their preferred nesting sites, and then return to their non-breeding habitat for the remainder of the year.

Most Eastern Buffleheads will begin their southward migration in October, starting from their breeding grounds in western and northern Canada. These birds will travel considerable distances southward and coastward before wintering in coastal regions along the Atlantic seaboard of North America.

Western Buffleheads are known to travel even further south than their Eastern counterparts, and they are commonly seen as far south as northern California during the winter months. This is because these birds breed on the coasts of Alaska and British Columbia, which are much closer to warmer, southern areas than the Eastern Buffleheads.

Buffleheads are known to migrate in large flocks, which can sometimes number in the tens of thousands. These flocks offer several advantages, including better chances of finding food, protection from predators, and increased opportunities for social behavior.

One interesting and unique characteristic of Buffleheads is that they are diurnal migrants. Unlike many other migratory bird species, which typically migrate at night, Buffleheads migrate during the day.

This behavior is thought to be advantageous for the birds, as it allows them to forage during the day and save energy during the night. During the non-breeding season, Buffleheads will form large assemblages and congregate in specific coastal or marine habitats.

These congregations may often include birds from several different breeding populations, allowing for greater genetic diversity and population mixing.


The Bufflehead is a fascinating bird species with unique habitat and migratory patterns. These birds rely on wooded swamps, ponds, and small lakes for breeding, and coastal lagoons and estuaries for food during the non-breeding season.

They are migratory birds and travel over long distances to reach their breeding grounds during summer before returning to their wintering habitats. Understanding their movements and habitat preferences is crucial for conservation and habitat management strategies that protect the Bufflehead and ensure its continued success.

Diet and Foraging


The Bufflehead is a diving duck that feeds on a variety of aquatic invertebrates and small fish. They obtain their food through diving underwater, where they use their wings to swim, their feet to steer, and their bill to probe for food.

Due to their small size, Buffleheads typically feed on smaller prey than other diving duck species.


The Bufflehead’s diet is primarily composed of small crustaceans, mollusks, and insects. They are known to consume the larvae of mosquitoes, midges, and other aquatic insects.

They also feed on amphipods, isopods, and other small crustaceans. During the breeding season, Buffleheads will supplement their diet with a variety of terrestrial insects, such as beetles, flies, and ants.

These insects are typically found in the trees and bushes surrounding their breeding habitat.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

Buffleheads have a high metabolic rate, which means they require a constant supply of food to meet their energy needs. To maintain their body temperature, Buffleheads have a combination of physiological and behavioral adaptations.

One of the primary physiological adaptations is their thick, insulating feathers, which help to retain heat and keep them warm in cold water. Buffleheads also have a unique circulatory system that allows them to conserve heat.

Blood vessels in their legs and feet are arranged in a countercurrent exchange system, which helps to prevent heat loss to the water. In addition to these physiological adaptations, Buffleheads also have behavioral adaptations that help them regulate their body temperature.

One of these adaptations is huddling, where groups of Buffleheads will huddle together during cold weather to conserve heat.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


Buffleheads are generally quiet birds but will vocalize during certain situations such as mating or aggression. Male Buffleheads have a lower-pitched and more drawn-out call than females.

The male Bufflehead’s call sounds like a high-pitched whistle, while the female’s sounds more like a soft quack. During courtship, male Buffleheads may also emit a series of whistles and call notes, often accompanied by head-bobbing and tail-wagging.

These displays are used to attract females and show off the male’s physical fitness. When threatened or aggressive, Buffleheads will also emit a variety of harsh, guttural calls to defend their territory or warn nearby individuals.

These calls can be heard over considerable distances and are thought to deter potential predators or competitors.


The Bufflehead is a unique duck species with distinct feeding habits and vocalizations. They obtain their food through diving underwater and feeding on a variety of small invertebrates and fish.

To maintain their energy requirements, Buffleheads have a high metabolic rate and unique temperature regulation adaptations. Although generally quiet birds, they will vocalize during specific situations, such as courtship or aggression.

Understanding the feeding habits and vocalizations of these fascinating birds is crucial for conservation measures, as these factors provide valuable insights into their ecology and behavior.



Buffleheads are primarily swimming and diving birds, but they are also capable of flying. On land, Buffleheads use their feet to walk or hop, while in the water, they use their wings to swim and their feet to steer.

Buffleheads are excellent divers, capable of reaching depths of up to 60 feet to forage for food. They can remain submerged for up to 20 seconds while feeding, making them incredibly agile and efficient diving birds.

Self Maintenance

Buffleheads are fastidious birds that spend a considerable amount of time preening and grooming. They use their bills to clean their feathers and remove parasites from their bodies.

This is an essential behavior, as it helps to maintain the insulating properties of their feathers and keep their feathers in good condition.

Agonistic Behavior

Buffleheads are generally peaceful birds and are not known for their aggressiveness. However, during the breeding season, males may engage in agonistic behavior to defend their territories or compete for mates.

Agonistic displays can include head-bobbing, wing-flapping, and charging at rival males. These displays may escalate to physical fights if the males do not back down.

Sexual Behavior

Buffleheads are monogamous birds that mate for a single breeding season. During the breeding season, males will establish territories and compete for the attention of females.

Male Buffleheads use vocalizations and physical displays, such as head-bobbing and wing-flapping, to attract females. Once they have established a pair bond, Buffleheads will mate and begin to build a nest together.

The female typically lays between 8-10 eggs, which are incubated for around 30 days. Both parents will take turns incubating the eggs and caring for the chicks once they hatch.


Buffleheads breed in the spring and summer months, usually from May to July.

Breeding pairs build their nests in cavities in trees, often using abandoned woodpecker holes or natural cavities.

The nests are lined with feathers and down to provide insulation for the eggs and chicks. Bufflehead chicks are born helpless and require constant care and attention from their parents.

Both parents will take turns incubating the eggs and caring for the young, feeding them small invertebrates and teaching them how to swim and forage for food.

Demography and Populations

Buffleheads have stable populations throughout most of their range, with an estimated global population of 1.1 million. Their population has remained generally stable over recent years, but habitat destruction and climate change continue to pose a threat to these birds.

In North America, Bufflehead populations tend to be concentrated around the Great Lakes and coastlines, with the highest observed numbers occurring on the Pacific Coast. The breeding success of Buffleheads varies depending on environmental factors such as temperature, rainfall, and predation.

High water levels during nesting season can also flood nests, which can lead to a loss of eggs and chicks. Overall, Buffleheads are an important component of aquatic ecosystems, and their populations serve as important indicators of wetland and marine health.

Understanding the behavior, breeding habits, and population dynamics of these unique birds is critical for their conservation and management. In conclusion, the Bufflehead is a fascinating bird species that is essential to maintaining the balance and health of aquatic ecosystems.

With its unique plumage, feeding habits, and vocalizations, the Bufflehead has captivated birdwatchers and nature lovers for many years. Its breeding and migratory behaviors, as well as its population dynamics, continue to be an area of significant research and study.

Understanding the Bufflehead’s ecology, behavior, and biology, and implementing conservation measures to protect this beautiful species, are important to ensure its continued success and survival for generations to come.

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