Bufflehead

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Image:Bufflehead.JPG

Common Name: Bufflehead
Scientific Name: Bucephala albeola

Size: 12.6-15.7 inches (32-40 cm); Wingspan: 21.7 inches (55 cm)

Habitat: North America; wintering throughout North America and summering in artic North America. Vagrants have been sighted in Kamchatka, Japan, Greenland, Iceland, the British Isles, Belgium, France, Finland, and Czechoslovakia.

Buffleheads breed near ponds and lakes in boreal forest and aspen parkland of Canada and Alaska, with isolated populations in the western United States. The Bufflehead’s breeding range is limited by the distribution of Northern Flickers, which are their main source of nesting cavities. In winter, they occur mainly near the coast (although they can be found in smaller numbers inland). They use shallow, sheltered coves, harbors, estuaries, or beaches, avoiding open coastlines. Inland, they use ponds, lakes, impoundments, or bays along slow-moving rivers. During spring migration they spend time on major rivers or valley lakes, often in the first spots to become free of ice.

Status: Least Concern. Global population: 1,400,000 +/- individuals. In the early twentieth century, Buffleheads had become scarce from overshooting, but they recovered under the protection of the Migratory Birds Convention between the United States and Canada. Christmas Bird Counts show a steady increase in Bufflehead numbers between 1927 and 1992, with an overall population estimate of some 1.4 million Buffleheads in 1992. The Bufflehead’s tendency to winter near to shore along coastlines tends to put it within range of hunters. Duck hunting is carefully managed to maintain populations; nevertheless between 200,000 and 250,000 are shot per year in the U.S. and Canada combined. Bufflehead are also losing nest sites as loggers clear-cut boreal forest, and as agricultural fields replace aspen parklands in western North America. Putting up nest boxes with small (2.5-inch diameter) openings in appropriate habitat can help.

Diet: Aquatic invertebrates, crustaceans, and mollusks. Food is caught by diving and is typically swallowed while still underwater. Dives last on average about 12 seconds and rarely more than 25 seconds, typically staying on the surface another 12 seconds or so before diving again.

Buffleheads swim buoyantly, dive easily, and take flight by running a short distance on the surface. They fly low over the water and higher over the land. To dive, Bufflehead compress their plumage to squeeze out air, then give a slight forward leap and plunge powerfully downward. They hold their wings tightly against their bodies underwater and use only their feet to propel themselves. At the end of a dive, they may bob to the surface like a cork.

Nesting: Adult males have a white body, black back, and a dark head with a large white patch that wraps around the back of the head. Females and first-year males are gray-brown overall with an oval, white cheek patch. In flight adult males have a large white patch on the upper wing; females and first-year males have a smaller white wing patch.

Unlike most ducks, the Bufflehead is mostly monogamous, often remaining with the same mate for several years. Bufflehead nest only in cavities, using holes dug by Northern Flickers and sometimes Pileated Woodpeckers (as well as artificial nest boxes). Just before egg laying, females make more secretive flights to prospective holes, either alone or with their mates. They usually choose cavities in poplar or aspen trees, except in California where they often use pine trees. 4-17 Cream-colored eggs are layed.

Cool Facts: It rivals the Green-winged Teal as the smallest American duck. Buffleheads have evolved their small size in order to fit the nesting cavity of their "metabiotic" host, a woodpecker, the Northern Flicker.

Bufflehead fossils from the late Pleistocene (about 500,000 years ago) have been found in Alaska, California, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Texas, and Washington. One California fossil that resembles a modern Bufflehead dates to the late Pliocene, two million years ago.  

Found in Songbird Remix Waterfowl Volume II: Diving and Sea Ducks

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