Out of over 29 duck species in North America, buffleheads stand out the most. These ducks travel in small groups from Arctic Canada to the southern United States. If you spot a bufflehead, there are likely more nearby or on the way.
North America’s smallest diving duck has a growing population across the continent. If you live near a body of water, there’s a good chance you’ve already seen this beautiful duck.
It’s most famous for the beautiful plumage on the drakes and their quirky moves when pursuing a mate.
What else makes the bufflehead stand out? Read below to find out about this one-of-a-kind duck and where you can observe them yourself.
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Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) get their name from the buffalo-shaped head of the male. Ornithologists first named it the “buffalo duck.” Bufflehead is simply a condensed version of the original.
This species is sometimes referred to as “butterball” by hunters. They’re named butterballs for storing high amounts of fat during migration.
Buffleheads are the smallest diving duck in North America and are similar in size to a goldeneye. Male and female ducks weigh between 9.6 and 22.4 ounces (272.2 and 635 grams) with a 21.6-inch wingspan (54.9 centimeters).
Males will be much more striking in color than females. Their large heads have a white patch behind their light brown eyes. This marking has them often confused with the hooded merganser.
Buffleheads are noticeably smaller ducks in comparison. The hooded merganser has a white patch that does not wrap around its head.
Female bufflehead coloring appears far more muted than males. Their head and body are light shades of brown, and the white on the head is only a patch under their eye.
Geography and Distribution
The buffleheads range across North America, depending on the time of year. Buffleheads always live near bodies of water. They usually inhabit ponds and lakes, while ocean dwellers stick to the coasts.
They begin the year wintering over in the central and southern United States. When winter gives way to spring, buffleheads embark on a long migration. Some ducks travel to the remote north of Canada and Alaska.
You can find buffleheads across North America during migration. As the journey continues, buffleheads will break on any water they find. For them, the water source doesn’t need to be deep. Some ducks even opt to rest on small irrigation ponds.
Destination Spots with Buffleheads
With such an expansive range, anyone living near a body of water can see buffleheads. Their migratory route takes them across North America. This is why there are several prime destinations to observe this bird.
Places like Chesapeake’s eastern shore are the best birdwatching destinations on the East Coast. The 2,285-acre (9.2 sq. km) Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge is among the top areas to see the bufflehead.
Saltwater and freshwater marshes appeal to the bufflehead up and down the coast. As they migrate, it is possible to see hundreds of them stop over at various ponds and marshlands.
The Great Lakes are an excellent, centrally-located region to see migrating buffleheads. These bodies of water offer coves to rest and feed for many species of duck during migration.
Long Point Conservation Area on Lake Erie is the longest point of land on the lake. The entire area is protected and remains mostly undeveloped. Here, birders have the chance to see buffleheads during migration. Long Point also offers trails and camping for those looking to immerse themselves.
West of the Rockies, there are plenty of destinations to see the bufflehead year-round. The coast of Oregon offers beautiful scenery and opportunities to view sea ducks.
Diver ducks also hide in coves like Nehalem Bay. From the ocean, they travel to surrounding bodies of water in search of cover.
Bufflehead ducks feed almost only underwater. Entire colonies dive underwater for around 20 seconds, foraging for invertebrates. During feeding, one group member will float and serve as an alarm for potential predators.
Their diet often depends on migration patterns. Saltwater buffleheads feed on mollusks, snails, and shrimp in shallow coastal pools. Coastal ducks have this diet available to them throughout the year.
In inland ponds, buffleheads chase dragonflies and damselfly nymphs. During winter, freshwater buffleheads switch their diet to seeds from marsh grasses. A large amount of seeds makes up for the lack of invertebrates.
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Mating and Reproduction
Buffleheads are one of the few monogamous ducks in the world. But when one partner passes, the other will begin nesting with another duck.
Courting males approach potential mates to begin the ritual. It starts when they bob their head and glide their bills across the water. The bobbing precedes a full bobbing motion of the head and neck in display to the females.
When challenged by another male, the bufflehead will first lean back. Then, with their feet almost out of the water, the two flap their wings rapidly at one another.
If the two continue to compete, one will fly and dive over the ducks in a display of dominance.
Males also dive at females. Never out of aggression, but to display their white breasts to potential mates. When buffleheads settle on a mate, the females begin scouting out potential nests.
Each year females lay 4 to 17 cream-colored eggs. Babies make an easy meal for a long list of predators. If a pair has more babies, there’s a better chance the offspring will reach breeding age.
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When breeding season begins, buffleheads move to small lakes and ponds. Females arrive to investigate poplar or aspen trees. They look for appealing nesting spots and often return to the same area yearly.
Buffleheads are the only duck species small enough to fit in the old nests of northern flickers. Flickers are far better drillers, and the deeper nest offers much more protection.
Some days after hatching, the ducklings jump out of the nest and down to the forest floor. Mothers then lead the ducklings to the water, where they quickly learn to swim. After tending to the hatch for 5 to 6 weeks, mothers abandon their ducklings and fly off to molt.
The mothers leave to join males who have already molted their flying feathers. During their molt, ducklings learn to fly with hopes of joining their families.
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Buffleheads take two primary migration routes across North America. Those that live west of the Rockies migrate from Canada and Alaska to the Pacific during winter. Infrequently, the buffleheads will stay year-round in parts of Washington and Oregon.
Buffleheads that breed in Central and Eastern Canada move south and east. Their migration route takes them from Northern Canada past the Great Lakes.
From there, ducks choose to move to the coast or head south. They scout large bodies of water to feed and live along the coast for the winter.
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In the wild, the average lifespan of a bufflehead is 2.5 years. In 1973, an 18-year-old bufflehead was once caught and released in New York. Today, it’s still known as the oldest documented bufflehead. Pretty impressive for a duck!
The size of the bufflehead makes it easier prey than most other ducks. Their expected lifespan is also far shorter than a mallard or merganser.
Bufflehead ducklings are extra vulnerable to predation before they learn to dive. These factors combine to make the bufflehead’s lifespan among the shortest of any duck.
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Population & Conservation Status
The bufflehead currently has a conservation status of least concern. The species boasts an increasing 1.3 million ducks. Buffleheads have such a wide range across North America that they have no habitat scarcity.
The main threat to the species in the future would be habitat degradation. Deforestation could force them from their northern breeding grounds.
Habitat loss would also be exceptionally disruptive to the bufflehead. This is because pairs return to the same hatching grounds every year.
Many plants need vertebrates to disperse their seeds in new environments. Buffleheads do this for a variety of marsh plants. The seeds get stuck in their feathers and feet, and as the duck travels, they can grow in new locations.
Buffleheads prey on insects, isopods, mollusk, and crustacean species. Their diet helps maintain a natural population level. Raptors, owls, and minks all prey on the duck, performing the same role.
How do I call a bufflehead?
Hunters and bird watchers have found few calls that bring in any diver ducks. One is using a mallard call and purring into the device. The sound replicates their chatter call and attracts curious nearby buffleheads.
The grouping behavior of diver ducks means they’re attracted to decoys rather than a call. As they migrate overhead, having a set of decoys increases the chances of a stopover.
Can I hunt buffleheads?
Buffleheads are popular gamebirds among hunters. The typical hunting season starts in late fall through the end of the year. The duck season length will depend on which state you are hunting in. Checking local regulations is a must before any hunt or harvest.
Decoys are an effective method for drawing in buffleheads. If decoys float in appealing locations, they will entice these diver ducks to check in.
Buffleheads are not hunted as much as other species. In fact, only 1 to 1.5% of ducks are harvested in the United States. The harvestable meat on the duck is not much, and most hunters opt not to do the work. Yet, the male’s markings make it a popular wall mount among duck hunters.
Are buffleheads considered mergansers?
Buffleheads are not a species of merganser. They do appear similar to the hooded merganser but are not related. Instead, buffleheads are one of two goldeneye species.
Goldeneyes and buffleheads are both of the Barcephala genera. The two are far more similar in size and behavior relative to mergansers. The mergansers are better swimmers and capable of diving down to catch fish.
Can you spot them outside of North America?
Buffleheads are extremely rare outside of North America. Despite nesting in the northern reaches of the continent, they will rarely drift over to Asia.
The ducks appear during winter as far west and east as Russia, Japan, Iceland, and the British Isles. These buffleheads were likely thrown off course by strong winds or bad weather.