Named “buffalo-headed” for its proportionally large head, the bufflehead is one of the smallest, most agile diving ducks. With its stunning black and white plumage, this bird is a welcome sight throughout North America, particularly throughout its widespread winter range.
Bufflehead, Buffalo-Head, Butterball
- Bill: Small, spatulate, pale gray-blue on males and darker gray on females
- Size: 13-16 inches long with 22-inch wingspan, compact body, large round head
- Colors: White, black, gray, gray-brown, iridescent, pink
- Markings: Dimorphic species. Males have a white body with a black back and grayish-white tail. The head is black in front and has a large white triangular wedge extending from behind the eyes and the auriculars across the nape, and extending as far up as the crown. On the black plumage, particularly on the head, a purple or green iridescence may be seen in good light. The legs and feet are bright pink, and in flight a large white patch completely crosses the wings. Females have a gray-brown body that fades to paler, whitish underparts and is darker, even blackish, on the head. There is a small, blurry white oval on the cheek and a white patch on the wings. In flight, the wings are dark except for white secondary feathers. Females' legs and feet are pinkish-gray. Juvenile birds resemble females, as do mature males in eclipse plumage. Both genders have dark eyes. The species is monotypic.
Aquatic insects, mollusks, fish, aquatic seeds, crustaceans (See: Omnivorous)
Habitat and Migration:
These small ducks have a widespread range and prefer wooded lakes, bogs and rivers during the summer but can also be found in flooded agricultural fields. In winter, they can also be found in coastal bays and lagoons as well as inland waterways. Buffleheads are found year round in small areas of the Rocky Mountain west, most prominently in central and southeastern Idaho. In summer, their breeding range includes most of interior Canada and Alaska but falls short of the northernmost tundra. In winter, they spread out to the south and can be found in most of the central and southern United States and Mexico, though they are most widespread in the west. Along the coastlines, winter buffleheads can be seen from the Aleutian Islands to Baja, Mexico, and from Newfoundland to Florida, the Gulf Coast and eastern Mexico.
Vagrant birds are occasionally reported just outside the typical bufflehead range, and rare sightings are regularly reported in Europe, though most European sightings are believed to be escaped birds rather than wild individuals.
These ducks are typically quiet, but females have a throaty “kuk-kuk” call that can be heard early in the breeding season. Males also have various growls and whistles that are also heard during the breeding season.
Buffleheads often congregate in small flocks, particularly in winter. They are agile swimmers, fliers and divers, and can take flight directly from the surface of the water with only a small space to take off, unlike other diving ducks that require a longer runway to build up to flight speed. They often forage in groups, diving together while leaving one sentry at the surface of the water. In flight, they have rapid, even frantic, wing beats and can look like black-and-white blurs.
These are monogamous ducks that may stay with the same mate for several years. Their courtship displays are relatively sedate and include vocal chattering and head bobbing. After mating, the female will find a suitable nest – these are cavity-nesting birds and typically look for abandoned holes from northern flickers or pileated woodpeckers, though they will also nest in wooden boxes. The female lines her nest with feathers plucked from her own breast, and she will lay 8-10 creamy ivory or buff eggs. Only one brood is raised each year.
The female incubates the eggs for 29-32 days, and the precocial young leave the nest within a day by jumping to the ground. They will remain with their female parent for an additional 50-55 days until their first flight.
These are not backyard birds, but they can be found in heavily populated areas where the appropriate wooded lakes and rivers are present. Aspen trees are particularly preferable. Leaving old trees with woodpecker cavities intact will provide nesting areas for buffleheads, and they can also be attracted to nesting boxes placed near the water.
The bufflehead population declined dramatically in the early 1900s due to overhunting and habitat loss, but with careful management the numbers have recovered well and these birds are not considered threatened. Additional monitoring of annual populations is necessary to ensure the numbers remain stable, and habitat preservation can continue to benefit these ducks.