For the Birds Radio Program: Buffalo heads

Original Air Date: Oct. 24, 2002 Rerun Dates: Oct. 19, 2004

The Common Goldeneye and Bufflehead share their scientific name with Alexander the Great’s horse.

Duration: 4′51″


Two of the most endearing ducks swimming on open lakes and rivers in winter share their scientific name with Alexander the Great’s war horse. The Common Goldeneye and Bufflehead belong to the genus Bucephala, not because they’re particularly horsy but because they share one trait with the magnificent animal, their unusually large heads, underscored by short necks and small bodies. Bucephalus the horse took his name from the Latin for “buffalo head,” and was valued for his great intelligence. Buffleheads take their common name directly from “buffalo head,” too.

The large head and small body of buffleheads and goldeneyes give them both a babyish look that seems exceptionally vulnerable when we see them bobbing in frigid water on cold winter days. Watching them swimming and diving so nonchalantly is a testament to the value of high quality long underwear. Thick down lofted beneath these birds’ outer feathers traps enough insulating air to keep their bodies a snug 103 degrees or so even as ice creeps over the water.

November was the peak month for bufflehead and goldeneye migration south. Most of them winter along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and so ornithologists often refer to them as “sea ducks,” though many goldeneyes and a handful of buffleheads overwinter in the Great Lakes region. Spring migration for both begins in February, and peaks in April. Both species nest in cavities and nest boxes. Buffleheads are small enough to use as their primary nesting sites old flicker holes, while goldeneyes mainly use pileated woodpecker holes and natural cavities formed when limbs drop. Almost all buffleheads nest in Canada and Alaska. Goldeneyes have a much wider breeding range, and are often seen nesting in the northern forests in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. Unlike most ducks, both bufflehead and goldeneyes are typically monogamous throughout the breeding season, and some bufflehead pairs have re-formed for at least three years in a row.

Both of these sea ducks have enthusiastic, charming breeding displays. Throughout much of the year bufflehead males perform several display behaviors around their mate or prospective mate. A male will fly over the female and then make a hard landing, holding the body erect and the white head feathers up as it “skis” across the water, holding its conspicuous pink feet forward. Males often swim past females raising their head with the white feathers extended, making the white area of the head look almost twice as large as usual. During the height of their courtship period in spring, buffleheads can also do some movements similar to goldeneyes.

Goldeneyes are famous for their breeding displays. The most famous element of their display is what ornithologists call the “head-throw-kick,” wherein the male thrusts his head straight forward, then jerks it all the way back to his rump, his bill pointing skyward as he makes a single, grating call note and then thrusts his head forward again, sometimes flicking it from side to side, as he kicks water out with his feet. These displays are so lively and exuberant that few people can help but laugh out loud to see them, so it’s small wonder they’re effective in holding the females’ attention and eliciting their cooperation for breeding. Goldeneyes begin courting in January, so going out and watching for it makes an easy and instantly-rewarding New Year’s resolution.

As ice closes in, bufflehead will move on for the duration, but many goldeneyes will remain in small opening in rivers and lakes. On the coldest mornings, we see their ghostlike forms swimming amidst tendrils of steam rising from the water, a sight with the power to warm our heart and spirit.