Bufflehead


Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)

This uncommon, small diving duck catches our eye in Alberta lakes and wetlands. The male's disproportionately large head - like a buffalo's (bison's) head - was the inspiration for its name.

Why they Matter to Us

Buffleheads

  • are a vital part of their ecosystem, eating aquatic invertebrate pests, and dispersing seeds they eat, as well as being a food source for predators
  • inspire bird watchers and photographers with their stunning markings
  • are fun to watch and observe as they escort their ducklings and defend their territory

How You Can Help

  • Sponsor a Bufflehead to help EALT protect important Bufflehead habitat. 

    • EALT protects wetland habitats important for buffleheads and other waterfowl. Buffleheads have been spotted at our Hicks and Golden Ranches natural areas, including a female with ducklings.

  • Build them a home! Buffleheads nest in cavities, therefore installing nest boxes near wetlands can help them find a suitable place to nest.
  • Leave snags (dead trees) standing in green spaces near wetlands to maintain nesting structures
  •  Help keep your watershed healthy! We all live in a watershed and what we do in our very own yards has an impact on wetlands nearby.
    • Wash your car at the carwash or use biodegradable soap
    • Do not litter
    • If you are using fertilizers or pesticides on your lawn follow the directions carefully and pay attention to the weather

How to Identify

Identify by Sight

  • Males are very striking with a large white patch that reaches from cheek to cheek over the back of their dark iridescent head.
  • Females are less boldly coloured and are dark grey-brown with oval white cheek patches.
  • Downy ducklings are black to dark grey with white patched cheeks, and a white throat, lower breast, and belly.

Identify in Flight

M & F in flight by Gerald Romanchuk

M & F in flight by Gerald Romanchuk

  • compact, big-headed black and white duck with a fast, direct flight that rocks side-to-side on fast wing beats
  • white band on upperwing on adult males and white patch on upperwing secondaries in females and first year males
  • takes flight directly from water into the air, unlike other diving ducks who run across the water before taking flight

Identify by Sound

  • Buffleheads don't sound like the usual "quack quack quack" like other ducks. Their vocabulary consists mostly of throaty "grrks", squeaky whisltes, chattering, and guttural "cuk cuk cuks".
    • Listen to a Bufflehead here.

Where to Find

 Buffleheads are found in lakes and wetlands in the boreal forest and aspen parkland regions of Alberta during migration and the breeding season. It nests in abandoned Northern Flicker cavities within poplar or aspen trees, or in a nest box. Breeding Buffleheads use permanent freshwater small lakes or ponds with abundant emergent and submergent plants. 

Buffleheads are one of the last ducks to leave Alberta before winter arrives. They overwinter on the Pacific and Gulf coasts, and the Southwest USA.

Duck nest box at Golden Ranches

Duck nest box at Golden Ranches

Growing Bufflehead ducklings at Golden Ranches

Growing Bufflehead ducklings at Golden Ranches

Social Life

  • Bufflehead breeding pairs claim a small lake where the female picks a cavity to nest in. Once she lays her eggs, the male departs to a molting ground where he will spend the rest of the summer with other unemployed males.
  • Buffleheads are territorial. Males will defend a female by diving under water and popping up underneath a rival male. Females will defend the water where she rears her young.
  • Male courtship displays involve head-bobbing, flying over and landing into a 'waterski' position showing off his pink legs and shimmery plumage.

Food Chain

  • Buffleheads eat aquatic insects, larvae, snails, small fish, and aquatic plants.
  • They are prey for raptors such as bald eagles, cooper's hawks, peregrine falcons, and great horned owls. Ducklings are sometimes prey to northern pike and gulls. The nest eggs are raided by bears, and members of the weasel family. 

Fun Facts

  • The oldest known bufflehead fossils are from the late Pleistocene (approximately 500,000 years ago!)
  • The oldest known bufflehead was 18 years and 8 months old. A bird-bander in New York recorded this bird.
  • The monogamous pair use the same nest site for several consecutive years.
  • They can stay underwater for up to 24 seconds, only propelling themselves using their feet!

Sources

Lift Interactive

Lift Interactive, 10139 81 Avenue Northwest, Edmonton, AB, T6E 1W9