For the Birds Radio Program: Sea Ducks

Original Air Date: Nov. 16, 1988

Today Laura Erickson talks about the bizarre mating habits of sea ducks.

Duration: 3′31″


(Recording of a Common Goldeneye)

November on Lake Superior can be a dismal time, with blustery winds and gray skies. But the moment I spot sea ducks from the far north bobbing on the choppy frigid water, my heart warms up. These elegant ducks dress up the icy water like a star atop a Christmas tree. And, encased in their thick down feathers, sea ducks are as comfortable in Lake Superior as a human would be in a heated indoor swimming pool. The most common sea ducks are the goldeneye and Bufflehead, who belong to the group even though they spend much of their lives in fresh water. These birds nest in cavities or wood duck houses on lakes and rivers, but many winter in salt water on the coasts, or in lakes too large and deep for dabblers. The Bufflehead, which is both the smallest of all North American waterfowl and my own favorite duck, is nicknamed the butterball, but since I plan to live out my entire life without ever eating one, I prefer calling it by its proper name. “Bufflehead” comes from the odd proportions of this duck, whose puffy head reminded early ornithologists of buffalo. The genus name for both the goldeneye and the bufflehead, Bucephala, was chosen because it means “ox head” or “bull head” in Greek—coincidentally, this was also the name of Alexander the Great’s horse.

Most people don’t pay much attention to ducks, and the one group that does, duck hunters, confine virtually all of their duck watching to autumn. So hardly anyone has seen the goldeneye’s wonderful and exotic courtship display. As the days lengthen in early spring, goldeneyes gather in big flocks amidst floating chunks of ice on rivers and lakes. There doesn’t need to be much heat in the air to turn a male goldeneye’s thoughts to romance. He can’t quack sweet nothings into his mate’s ear, but he does whistle and make raspy notes.

(Recording of a Common Goldeneye)

He keeps his head thrust out close to the water as he swims around and around his appointed mate, and then he suddenly springs into action like a wind up toy–he pulls up in the water so his breast is high and his bill points straight up–and then to bizarre effect he snaps back his head so it rests on his back just in front of his tail. When he jerks his head back into the normal position, he often does a little dance, squirting water behind and showing off his bright orange feet. The first time I saw this dance I was awestruck and watched them for a full hour.

This time of year goldeneyes are far more sedate, but I can’t help but think of their exuberant zeal for love whenever I see them.

Other sea ducks found on Lake Superior in November include the elegant Oldsquaw, streamlined mergansers and chunky scoters. So far this fall all three scoter species have been spotted along the North Shore, and birders check out ever duck they see in hopes of something even rarer, like a Harlequin Duck or the most exotic sea ducks of all–the eiders. An exhausted King Eider turned up in the Grand Marais marina October 30, and hope springs eternal in a birder’s heart that it is only a matter of time before another visitor from the Far North appears on our shores.

(Recording of a Common Goldeneye)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”