Breeding adult male. Photo: Pam Polcyn/Audubon Photography Awards

Bufflehead

Bucephala albeola

A diminutive diver, one of our smallest ducks, often very energetic in its feeding. Related to the goldeneyes and, like them, nests in cavities; but unlike other hole-nesting ducks, the Bufflehead is small enough to use unmodified old nest holes of Northern Flickers, giving it a ready source of good nest sites. Less sociable than most ducks, seen in pairs or small groups, almost never in large flocks. Takes wing easily from the water, flies with rapid wingbeats. The name "Bufflehead" is derived from "buffalo-head," for the male's odd puffy head shape.
Conservation status Evidently much less numerous now than historically, owing to unrestricted shooting early in 20th century and to loss of nesting habitat, but still fairly common and widespread. Current populations seem stable overall.
Family Ducks and Geese
Habitat Lakes, ponds, rivers; in winter, salt bays. Preferred nesting habitat is around ponds and small lakes in rather open mixed coniferous and deciduous forest, also burned areas and aspen groves; less often in pure coniferous forest, near rivers or larger lakes. In winter on sheltered bays and estuaries, also on lakes, ponds, and slow-moving rivers inland.
A diminutive diver, one of our smallest ducks, often very energetic in its feeding. Related to the goldeneyes and, like them, nests in cavities; but unlike other hole-nesting ducks, the Bufflehead is small enough to use unmodified old nest holes of Northern Flickers, giving it a ready source of good nest sites. Less sociable than most ducks, seen in pairs or small groups, almost never in large flocks. Takes wing easily from the water, flies with rapid wingbeats. The name "Bufflehead" is derived from "buffalo-head," for the male's odd puffy head shape.
Photo Gallery
Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly underwater. All the birds in a small flock may dive at same time. Rarely feeds with only head submerged.


Eggs

8-10, sometimes 6-12. Cream to pale buff. Incubation is by female, 29-31 days, sometimes 28-33. Young: leave nest 1-2 days after hatching, are led to water by female. Young are tended by female but feed themselves. 2 broods may join, or young separated from one brood may join another. Age at first flight 50-55 days.


Young

leave nest 1-2 days after hatching, are led to water by female. Young are tended by female but feed themselves. 2 broods may join, or young separated from one brood may join another. Age at first flight 50-55 days.

Diet

Varies with season and habitat. In summer and on fresh water feeds mainly on aquatic insects; on ocean feeds mainly on crustaceans. Also eats many mollusks (especially snails) in winter, and small amounts of plant material in fall.


Nesting

Males begin courtship displays by early winter, but most pairs form in spring. Displays of male include head-bobbing, wing-lifting, and short display flights, most with crest feathers fully raised. Nest site, chosen by female, is in tree cavity (especially old flicker holes), usually 2-10' above ground, sometimes up to 50'. Sometimes uses nest boxes. Same site may be used for several years. Lining of down is only nest material.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Migrates relatively late in fall; spring migration is protracted over long period. Overland migration, in small flocks, apparently occurs mostly at night.

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Migration

Migrates relatively late in fall; spring migration is protracted over long period. Overland migration, in small flocks, apparently occurs mostly at night.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Male has a squeaky whistle; female, a soft, hoarse quack.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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How Climate Change Will Reshape the Range of the Bufflehead

Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect this bird’s range in the future.

Zoom in to see how this species’s current range will shift, expand, and contract under increased global temperatures.

Climate threats facing the Bufflehead

Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.

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