The Beautiful Little Bufflehead
The smallest wild duck in North America, the little Bufflehead is only about 13 inches in length, with a wingspan of 24 inches, and a weight of only a pound. The male is primarily snow white, with a black back, tail, rump, and primary and tertiary feathers. Its head is large and round, with a metallic green-purple on the lower and front areas. The feet are red-orange, the bill is blue, and the crown, cheeks, and top of the rear of the head are snow white. A young male will get his adult plumage when he is about 1 ½ years of age, but until then, will resemble the female.
The female is just a little smaller. She is mostly a soft brown, with an off-white breast and belly. Just behind and below her eyes is a white cheek patch, and a portion of her speculum(contrasting iridescent feathers on the side) is white. She also has gray feet.
This buffalo-headed or ox-headed duck is in all states except Hawaii and all Canadian provinces. It breeds north of the Canadian border to Alaska, concentrated in the wooded western part of Canada. It winters from Maine to Alaska south to the Mexican-Central American border and along all the coasts. Where lakes and rivers aren’t frozen, this duck can be found.
Breeding and Nesting
The males fight among themselves, aggressively chasing each other. He raises the head feathers, points his bill upward, and swims around and toward females. The male will also dive under the female, and when he emerges again, will lower his bill in the water, shake his head from side to side, and send water into the air. If one female doesn’t care for him, he will go to another and repeat the process. When he locates one to accept him, they will fly away to locate a nesting spot together.
On Friday, April 12, 2013, I finally got my chance to observe the Buffleheads intense in the mating ritual. The male was more passive than I thought he would be. The females were much more aggressive, several of them involved in chasing the lone male. He was doing head bobs, as were the females, and he flew off alone the first time. He returned within five minutes, picked a female, and she flew off with him. It appears that they will actually nest on Boomer Lake this year, so I will keep a watch for the young, so wish me luck in that endeavor. Who knows, we might just have a real treat in store for us!
This cavity nester usually nests in abandoned flicker holes. They will also seek any natural cavity, but will never make their own. Only rotten wood and down from the female is used for nesting material. As long as the nest site is near water, that’s really all that matters to the Bufflehead.
Eggs and Young Ones
A typical clutch is about eleven eggs and incubation is about three weeks, which is performed solely by the female. The young ones look quite similar to their mother, and they have no difficulty leaving the nest at the mother’s request. They climb up the inside of their cavity and simply jump out or fall out of the opening. They will just pick themselves up and race after their mother to the water.
The young take to the wing at about two months old. This is the only diving duck that can take off directly from the water by springing into the air without running across the water’s surface. After the duck submerges for food, it actually flies to the surface again, bursting into the air from the water. They travel in small flocks, flying just over the water’s surface. Only during migration will they fly higher.
They are very social and frequently mingle with other ducks, like scaups, Ring-necked Ducks, and Goldeneyes. They get along with any duck that happens to be in the vicinity.
Eighty percent of the diet is animal matter, the remaining is vegetable. They prefer to feed in shallow areas by diving for it. They usually stay submerged for a good 35 seconds, then will pop up again to breathe. They enjoy fish, small crustaceans, water beetles, small mollusks, pondweed, wild celery, and wild rice.
Due to its small size, this duck is hunted by numerous airborne and terrestrial predators, like the eagle and hawk. It also has its share of afflications, like disease, parasites, and accidents.
© 2012 Deb Hirt