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The Bobbing Buffleheads

Photo by Douglas Jackson.
Photo by Douglas Jackson.

Article and photos by Master Naturalist Doug Jackson

If you visit or live on any of our local lakes, this time of year you’ll notice small flocks of little hyperactive ducks splashing about and putting on an entertaining display.

A favorite of birdwatchers, buffleheads, Bucephala albeola, are migrating back to their summer nesting sites in central and western Canada.

They’ve spent their winters in the southern half of the U.S. and, climate permitting, in open water sections of the Great Lakes.

On their gradual journey back north, the males, which have the strikingly contrasting black and white appearance, will put on their courtship displays for the less striking brown females, that don a white patch on their cheeks.

The buffleheads derive their names from the male’s head shape that, when he fluffs up his crest, can appear disproportionately large like a buffalo head.  The sides and crest of the males’ heads have large white patches bordered by dark feathers on their faces and necks that can either appear black or iridescently shining in purple and green hues depending on the angle and availability of light.

Photo by Douglas Jackson.

These ducks are atypical of most other ducks in that they are monogamous – keeping the same mate for several years.  And although mating season is from late winter into April, they continue to perform their comical courtship displays throughout the year.

The energetic males will burst into short, low-altitude flight directly over the females, land as if waterskiing with their pink feet held out in front, then flap their wings and do a head dance, throwing their heads back and forth and bobbing up and down.

The enamored female is then found following her mate as they swim around the lake.

Usually a non-social bird, these ducks are most often found only in pairs or smaller flocks.  If other males move in on one’s mate, he will make great efforts to chase the intruders away.

Ducks are divided into two groups.  Dabblers, like the mallards, will remain on the water surface to feed, only dunking their faces in the water.  Divers, like the mergansers, will completely submerge as they dive down to the lake beds to feed.

Photo by Douglas Jackson.

Being the smallest of diving ducks, buffleheads define that behavior.

They are constantly submerging themselves, for up to 20 seconds, as they forage in shallow areas for aquatic insect larvae or aquatic snails to feed their enormous metabolisms.  Surfacing, they bob up like rubber duckies released from the bottom of a bathtub.

When they do arrive to their Canadian nesting sites in May, they like to return to their same nesting cavities, if available, typically found in lakeside aspen groves. 

Buffleheads have something of a symbiotic relationship with northern flickers, a large woodpecker also found in Michigan, in that the northern flickers’ abandoned nesting cavities are favored by buffleheads.

These nesting cavity holes are typically no larger than 2 ½ inches in diameter, too small for competing cavity dwelling ducks such as goldeneyes and hooded mergansers.

Buffleheads have been around for a long time.  Many bufflehead fossils have been found around North America as old as 500,000 years. One bufflehead fossil in California has been dated to 2 million years old. 

It appears that these birds will also be around for a long time to come.  Despite threats from habitat loss and a small percentage hunted each year, their populations continue to be stable.

Photo by Douglas Jackson.

Aside from being part of the diet for woodland carnivores and birds of prey, their contributions to the ecology include insect control and seed dispersion.

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