What is a Bufflehead Duck?

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  • Written By: Alyssa Simon
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
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  • Last Modified Date: 21 October 2019
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A bufflehead duck is thought to be one of the smallest ducks in North America. Its name comes from the words buffalo and head, referring to the male duck's ability to ruffle the feathers on its head to increase its size. Bufflehead ducks breed in Alaska and Canada and spend winters on American coastal waters, sometimes flying as far south as the Texas Gulf Coast. They are omnivorous marine animals and live by rivers and streams, where they dive for aquatic plants, insects and small fish.

The scientific name for the bufflehead duck is Bucephala albeola. The males are black and white with purple and green feathers on their heads and large white spots beneath their eyes. A female bufflehead duck has a smaller patch and gray feathers. Bufflehead ducks are thought to be highly active, with a rapid wing beat and fast metabolism. Due to their small size, they are able to achieve flight quickly without having to run along a water's surface first.


The birds are thought to be monogamous and usually keep the same mate for several years. They can breed when they are 2-years-old in the spring season and prefer to nest in cavities of trees often made by woodpeckers. The females can wait up to three days in between laying each egg and can lay six to 11 in a brood. Bufflehead duck eggs incubate for about a month and then remain in the nest for up to 48 hours before learning to search for food on their own. The mother bufflehead duck will leave the ducklings when they are about six weeks old and fully independent.

A bufflehead duck is only thought to be aggressive when the female is protecting her young. Some female ducks with ducklings may fight each other for territory, and the winner can walk off with the loser's brood. Bufflehead ducks are not known to make loud sounds except for when courting. Then, the male makes a low chattering sound described as guttural. A female bufflehead duck can also make clucking sounds when searching for a nesting spot.

Often living in small groups, one or two bufflehead ducks will usually serve as a lookout for owls, falcons and eagles, their main predators, while the others dive for food. The bufflehead duck population is not considered endangered. The main threat to their existence may be loss of their habitat from industrial activity such as land development and oil spillage along coastal waters.


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