Bent Life History of the Bufflehead

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Bufflehead - the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.




The propriety of applying the name " spirit duck" to this sprightly little duck will be appreciated by anyone who has watched it in its natural surroundings, floating buoyantly, like a beautiful apparition, on the smooth surface of some pond or quiet stream, with its striking contrast of black and white in its body plumage and with the glistening metallic tints in its soft fluffy head, relieved by a broad splash of the purest white; it seems indeed a spirit of the waters, as it plunges, quickly beneath the surface and bursts out again in full flight, disappearing in the distance with a blur of whirring wings.

Spring: Although a hardy species and generally regarded as a cold-weather bird, the bufflehead is rather slow in making its spring migration; it follows gradually the retreat of winter, but lingers on the way. Dr. F. Henry Yorke (1899) says:

The first issue of these birds appears in the interior above the frost line late In the spring, a short time before the blue-winged teals arrive; and with the ruddy ducks are the last of the divers to travel northward. They soon depart to the far north, where they are followed by the second and third issues, which scatter over the country before they also follow the advanced flight.

Courtship: Although the bufflehead lingers in some of our ponds until quite late in the spring and during some seasons is fairly common, I have not been particularly successful in studying its courtship on account of its shyness. On bright, warm days during the latter part of April or early in May the courtship of this species may be studied with some hope of success, though long and patient watching through powerful glasses may be necessary. The males are quite quarrelsome at this season and fight viciously among themselves for the possession of the females. The male is certainly a handsome creature as he swims in and out among the somber females, his bill pointing upward, his neck extended, and his beautiful head puffed out to twice its natural size and glistening in the sunlight. Standing erect he struts about, as if supported by his feet and tail, with his bill drawn in upon his swelling bosom, a picture of pride and vanity, which is doubtless appreciated by his would-be mate. Suddenly he dives beneath her and on coming up immediately deserts her and flies over to another female to repeat the process. He seems fickle or flirtatious in thus dividing his attentions, but perhaps they have not been graciously received or he has been rebuffed. Sometimes he becomes coy and swims away until she shows interest enough to follow him. Eventually he finds the one best suited to him and the conjugal pact is sealed.

Dr. Charles IV. Townsend (1916) describes the courtship of the bufflehead as follows:

A group of 35 or 40 of these birds, with sexes about equally divided, may have been actively feeding, swimming together in a compact flock all pointing the same way. They dive within a few seconds of each other and stay under water 14 to 20 seconds, and repeat the diving at frequent intervals. Suddenly a male swims vigorously at another with flapping wings, making the water holl, and soon each male is ardently courting. He spreads and cocks his tail, puffs out the feathers of his head and cheeks, extends his hill straight out in front close to the water and every now and then throws it back with a bob in a sort of reversed bow. All the time he swims rapidly, and, whereas in feeding the gronp were all swimming the same way in an orderly manner, the drakes are now nervously swimming back and forth and In and out through the crowd. Every now and then there is a commotion in the water as one or more drakes dive, with a splashing of water, only to come up again in pursuit or retreat. As the excitement grows a drake flaps his wings frequently and then jumps from the water and flies low with outstretched neck toward a duck Who has listlessly strayed from the group. He alights beside her precipitately, sliding along on his tail, his breast and head elevated to their utmost extent and held erect. He bobs nervously. And so it goes.

Nesting: The center of abundance of the bufflehead in the breeding season seems to be in the wooded regions of Canada lying ~vest and north of the Great Plains, where it is well distributed and in some places quite colnInon. Sidney S. S. Stansell (1909) says that an central Alberta it is '~ about as common as the mallard; nearly every small pond has its pair, and some of them two l)aii's, of this beautiful little duck. When two or more pairs occupy a single pond, the males are usually very ptlguacious. often quarreling and trying to drive each other off the pond for hours at a time." A set of 12 eggs in my collection collected by Mr. Stansell, near Carvel, Alberta, on June 11, 1912, was taken from an old flicker's nesting hole, 20 feet from the ground; as the e~s were nearly fresh, there was no linino' in the nest except the chips left by the previous occupant.

Herbert MaSsey has sent me some data rewarding a set of 10 eggs in his collection, taken hr Mr. W. H. Bingainan. at Island Lake. Saskatchewan ,30 miles west of Prince Albert, on Mar 28. 1905. The nest was in an enlarged flicker excavation 15 feet from the ground and 2 feet from the l)roken-off top of a dead poplar tree ; the eggs lay 15 inches below the very i irei~ular opening, among rotten wood dust, flicker feathers, and Ii gut-colored down of the duck; the tree was 10 yards from the shore of the lake; the female was sitting and was secured. The collector says:

I found this species nowhere abundant in Saskatchewan, and two sets are the complete result of my seasons work among this species. I took one other set at Montreal Lake, 95 miles northeast of Island Lake, anti the nesting site was almost a duplicate of this one; it also contained It) eggs.

Maj. Allan Brooks (1903) thus describes the breeding habits 01 the bufflehead in the Cariboo district of British Columbia:

Almost every lake has one or more pairs of these charming little ducks. Unlike Barrow's goldeneye, the nests were always in trees close to or but a short distance away from water. These nests were invariably the deserted nesting holes of flickers, and in most cases had been used several years in succession by the ducks. The holes were in aspen trees, from 5 to 20 feet from the ground, and the entrance was not more than 31/t inches in diameter. The number of eggs ranged from 2 to 9. 8 being the average; in color they resemble old ivory, without any tinge of green. I have several lilacs seen the eggs of this duck described as "dusky green,' but these have evidently been the eggs of some species of teal. Tile female bufliehead is a very close sitter, never leaving the nest ulItil tIle hole was sawed out, and in luost cases I had to lift the bird and throw her up in the air, when she woold nlake a bee line for the nearest lake, where her mate would be slowly swilullling up anlI ilown unconscious of the violation of his holue. In many cases the eggs had fine clucks, evidently lalIdo by the comlIreSsitlIl of the bird's body when entering the Slilull a perture.

J. A. Munro found a nest: in an old pileated woodpecker's hole near the top of a yellow pine stub, without bark or branches and broken off 40 feet from the ground. It stood among young Murray pines and poplars 20 yards from the shore of the lake. Down adhering to the entrance of the hole identified the nest as belonging to tbe bufflehead. The nest had been used the previous year by buffleheads and during the following ~vlnter by flying squirrels. This was indicated by a quantity of old bufflehead down, with fragments of eggshell adhering, lying at the bottom of the Iree. To this down the flying squirrels had added a quantity of moss. Apparently the female bufflehead had removed the mixture of moss and down before commencing to lay.

Where trees are scarce, as in certain parts of Saskatchewan, the buffiehead is said to lay its eggs in a hole in a hank, after the manner of the belted kingfisher, using for this purpose the deserted burrow of a gopher near some small lake. Such cases must be exceptional, however. The down in the nest is small, light, and flimsy; it is "pallid purplish ~ay"in color, with small white centers. The breast feathers in it are pure white.

Eggs: The hufflehead lays from 6 to 14 eggs, but 10 or 12 seems to he the usual number. M. P. Skinner writes to me that he "encountered a female on Yellowstone River with 16 well-grown young, and, as I could not find another parent, I have always assigned this extraordinary brood to the one mother."

The shape is bluntly ovate, elliptical ovate, or nearly oval. The shell is smooth and slightly glossy. The color varies from "ivory yellow "to "marguerite yellow" or "pale olive huff." The measurements of 86 eggs in various collections, average 48.5 by 34.7 millimeters; thc eggs showing the four extremes measure 55 by 37, 53.5 by 38, and 40 by 26 millimeters.

Plumages: As might he expected, the downy young buffiehead closely resembles the young goldeneye in color pattern. The upper parts, including the upper half of the head from below the lores and eyes, the hind neck, the back and the rump, are deep rich "bone brown," with a lighter gloss on the forehead and mantle; the inner edge of the wing is pure white; there is a large white spot on each side of the scapular region and on each side of the rump; and an indistinct whitish spot on each flank. The under parts, including the chin, throat, cheeks, breast, and belly are pure white, shading off gradually into the darker color on the sides of the body and with an indistinct brownish collar around the lower neck.

In the juvenal plumage the sexes are much alike and resemble the adult female, except that the colors are duller and browner and the white cheek patches smaller than in the adtllt. The young male soon begins to differentiate from the young female, by increasing faster in size and by the development of the head, with a more conspicuous white patch. The progress toward maturity is very slow, and even in May the young male has only partially assumed the adult plumage the tail and much of the body plumage has been renewed, the wings are still inunature. and the head has acquired larae white patches, but only a few of the lilirPle feathers of the adult. A complete summer molt occurs in ïJuly and August. after which the adult plumage is gradually assumed and is compicted in November and December. The young male thus becomes adult at an age of 17 or 18 months. The young female makes practically the same progress toward maturity.

I have never seen the eclipse pluroage of the bufflelieacl, but according to Mr. Millais (1913) both old and young males assume a fairly complete eclipse, resembling a similar stage of plumage in the goldeneye."

Food: The bufflehead obtains its food by diving, usually feeding in small companies so that one or more remain on the surface to watch for approaching dangers while the others are below: sometimes only one remains above, but it is only rarely that all no below at once; should the sentinel become alarmed it comnuinicates in some way with the others which come to the surface and all swim or fly away to a safe distance.

Neltje Blanchan (1898) describes its feeding habits very neatly, as follows:

A hutlieheatl overtakes and eats little fish under ~vater or equally nimble insects on the surface, probes the muddy bottom of the lake for small shellfish nibbles the seawrack and other vegetable growth of the salt-water inlets, all the while toughening its flesh by constant exercise and making it rank by a fishy diet, until none but the hungriest of sportsmen care to hag it.

Audubon (1840) says:

Their food is much varied according to situation. On the seacoast, or in estuaries, they dive after shrimps, small fry, and bivalve shells ; aiid iii fresh water they feed on small crayfish, leeches, and snails, and even grasses.

Ora W. Knight (1908) says that in the inland reaions of Maine "they feed on chubs, shiners, small trout fry, and other small fish. Along the coast their diet is very similar." Other writers include in their food various small mollusks, crustaceans, beetles, locusts, gl'asshoppers. and other insects.

Dr. F. Henry Vorke (1899) lists the following genera of plants among the food of the bufflehead: Limnobiurn, Jlymopkyliurn, Callitriche, Utricularia, and Pontederia.. Vegetable luatter seems to form only a small part of the food of this species and is eaten mainly during the stimmer.

Behavior: T he flight of the buffichead is exceedingly swift and direct, generally at no very great elevation above the water, and is performed with steady and very rapid beats of its strong little wings. It rises neatly and quickly from the surface of the water and sometimes from below it, bursting into the air at full speed. When alighting on the water it strikes with a splash and slides along the surface. It generally travels in small irregular flocks made up largely of females and young males, with two or three old drakes.

It is one of the best of divers, disappearing with the suddenness of a grebe, with the plumage of its head compressed and its wings closely pressed to its sides. It can often succeed in diving at the flash of a gun and thus escape being shot. Under water it can swim with closed wings swiftly enough to catch the small fish on which it feeds so largely; but I believe that it often uses its wings under water for extra speed. It can also dive to considerable depths to secure its food from the bottom. Charles E. Alford (1920) says that it seldom or never dives to a greater depth than 2 fathoms. He timed a large number of dives and found that the period of immersion varied from 15 to 23 seconds, usually it was about 20, and the interval between dives varied from 4 to 8 seconds.

The following incident, related by Mr. Samuel Hubbard, jr. (1893), shows that its diving powers are sometimes taxed to the limit:

A broad, sandy bay made in from the harbor, the upper end of which terminated in a shallow slough about 18 inches deep. I waded across and was proceeding toward the beach, when my attention was attracted by a small bufflehead duck (Charitonetta nib cola) commonly called butterball. He was swimming around in the slough and obtaining his food in the way common to his kind, by diving and picking up that which came his way. With an admirlag glance at his beautiful plumage, I was about to pass on, when one of those pirates of the air, a duck hawk (Felco peregrinus anatum) came In sight. Without hesitating an instant, he made straight for my little friend and swooped at him. His long talons came down with a clutch, but they closed on nothing, for the duck was under the water. Undaunted the hawk hovered overhead, and as the water was clear and shallow, he could follow every movement of his prey. Again the duck came up; the hawk swooped to seize him, each move being repeated in quick succession and each dive becoming shorter and shorter. It was evident that the poor little hunted creature was getting desperate, for the next move be made was to come out of the water flying. The hawk promptly gave chase. There was some clever dodging in the air, but the duck, frightened and tired, soon saw that his swift pursuer was getting the best of it, so he closed his wings tight against his body and dropped like a stone into the water and plunged out of sight. Now comes the beginning of the end. While be was under water he either saw the hawk hovering over him or else he became bewildered, for he came again out of the water flying. Like lightning the hawk struck; there was a muffled "squawk," and the tragedy was ended.

Dr. J. G. Cooper (1860) writes:

I once saw a male that I had just wounded dive in clear water, and, seizing hold, by its bill, of a root growing under water, remain voluntarily submerged for almost five minutes, until he supposed all danger past, when, again ascending to the surface, he paddled off with great rapidity.

I cannot remember that I have ever heard its note, bus Dr. D. G. Elliot (1898) says that "it utters at times a single guttural note, which sounds like a small edition of the hoarse roll of the canvashack and other large diving ducks."

L. K. Dice (1920) says of its notes:

As a rule they are silent; only on a few occasions were any calls heard. Once while driving a pair in front of a blind to take pictures, the male and female became separated. Then the male gave a squeaky call, which the female answered with a hoarse quack, quack, and the male immediately flew to her side. At another time a female alighted in an eddy of the river and gave a low call, pit, pit, quk, quk, pit, quk, quit-, slowly, and the male in a few minutes appeared and alighted beside her.

Halt: In the fall this species is one of the later migrants, coming along with the hardier winter ducks. It is not of much account as a game bird; its body is small and its flesh is not particularly desirable, as it feeds so largely on animal food. It is, however, often very fat, from xvhich it has derived the name of "butterball." It is apparently not regularly hunted or sought for by gunners, but is often shot while hunting other species.

Winter: W. L. Dawson (1909) says of the habits of this species on the coast of Washington:

Butlieheads are among our most abundant ducks in fall and winter throughout the State. They are found alike in swift rivers and on placid mill ponds. Brackish pools and tide channels, tide fiats, and tossing billows, all are alike to these happy and hardy little souls. Perhaps the greatest number, however, arc found upon the bays and shallower waters of Puget Sound. They associate chiefly in little flocks of from half a dozen to 50 individuals, and they venture inshore, as often as they dare, to feed on the rising tide. When they reach us in October they are fat as butter (whence, of course, "butterball "), but they have gained their flesh on the cleaner feeding grounds of the northern interior. On a fare of fish and marine xvorms, which they obtain in salt water almost entirely by diving, their flesh soon becomes rank and unprofitable.

M. P. Skinner has sent me the following notes on the habits of bufficheads in Yellowstone Park:

As a rule these ducks nre on the larger waters such as Yellowstone Lake and Yellowstone River, resorting to smaller lakes and ponds at very infrequent intervals. In stormy times, they are driven to quieter waters, but even then prefer to find a calm spot near shore of Yellowstone Lake or a back water on the river. When on streams, they do not care for the swifter water. They are fond of sitting on sand bars, gravel bars, mud points, and on the beaches about Yellowstone Lake. Many of these birds are to be seen all winter in openings in the ice on the lake, and on the river where kept ice-free by the current, along the Firehole River kept open by hot geyser ivater, and on the Gardiner River below the mouth of warm Boiling River. They are social and keep together in small, compact flocks. Similar food habits bring them in close contact with some ducks and the limited open water in winter with others. In these ways, they are often with mergansers, Barrow goldeneye, American goldeneye, canvasbacks, redheads, bluebills, coot, grebes, mauard, green-winged teal, baldpate, shovellers, ruddy ducks, geese, and swans. On the sandy beaches, they are often near spotted sandpipers, or pelican, if not actually with them.

From the above it will be inferred that the bufflehead winters as far north as it can find open water in the interior. On the coasts it is found as far north as New England and British Columbia. It seems to prefer to be on or near the frost line and does not go much south of the United States in winter.

Dr. Leonard C. Sanford (1903) writes:

The butterball is common on both coasts, and is fond of shallow, sandy bays, frequenting the tide rips and mouths of rivers, remaining through the coldest weather. A few years ago this bird was common all along the New England shore. Large numbers wintered on the sound between New Haven and Stratford, where the coast is shallow and sandy, early in the morning leaving the outer flats and feeding up the rivers. It was a simple matter to shoot them on their flight, as they came over the bars, low down and usually In the same course. Hecently the butterball seem to have largely disappeared from the New England coast, though still common on bays farther south.

Breeding range: Mainly in the interior of Canada. East to northern Ontario (probably), said to breed in New Brunswick and recorded once as breeding in southeastern Maine (Washington County). Has been recorded as breeding formerly, and probably only casually, south to southeastern Wisconsin (Pewaukee Lake), northern Iowa (Clear Lake, etc.), and 'Wyoming (Meeteetse Creek) ; but it evidently does not breed now anywhere south of the Canadian border except in northern Montana (Milk River, Flathead Lake, and Meagher County). West to central British Columbia (Sumas and southern Okanogan). There is a recent breeding record for California (Eagle Lake). North to west central Alaska (Kuskokwim River and the Yukon Valley), northern Mackenzie (nearly to the mouth of that river), Great Slave Lake (Forts Rae and Resolution) and the southwestern coast.s of Hudson Bay and James Bay.

Winter range: Mainly in the United States, entirely across the continent. South casually to Cuba; commonly to South Carolina, northern Florida (Leon County), the Gulf coasts of Louisiana and Texas; arid less commonly or rarely to central Mexico and Lower California (San Quintin). North to the Aleutian and Commander Islands, the Alaska Peninsula, southern British Columbia (Okanogan Lake), northwestern Montana (Tetlow County), the Great Lakes (Michigan, Huron, and Ontario) and the coast of Maine.

Spring migration: Northward and inland. Early dates of arrival: Pennsylvania, Renovo, February 29; Massachusetts, March 11; Ontario, Ottawa, March 20; Illinois, Shawneetown, February 27 Iowa, southern, March 1; Minnesota, Heron Lake, March 6; Alberta, Alix, April 24; Alaska, Cross Sound, April 13, and Craig, May 9; Pribilof Islands, May 19. Average dates of arrival: Pennsylvania, Renovo, March 18; Massachusetts, March 11; New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, March 22; Indiana, central, March 2; Illinois, northern, March 21; Michigan, southern, March 31; Ontario, southern, April 7, and Ottawa, April 24; Nebraska, Omaha, March 15; Iowa, southern, March 22; Minnesota, Heron Lake, March 26; South Dakota, central, April 8; Manitoba, southern, April 25; Saskatchewan, Osler, May 2; Mackenzie. Fort Simpson, May 11. Late dates of departure: North Carolina, Smith's Island, April 15; Massachusetts, Taunton, May 2; California, Los Angeles County, April 22.

Fall migration: Gradual southward movement, mainly inland. Dates of arrival: Ontario, Ottawa, October 26; Nova Scotia, Sable Island, November 7; Massachusetts, October 8; Rhode Island, October 13; Pennsylvania, November 10. Late dates of departure: Alaska, Fort Reliance, October 7; Quebec, Montreal, November 1; Ontario, Ottawa, November 8.

Casual records: Accidental in southern Greenland (Godhaven, 1827, and Frederikshaab, 1891). Two records for Bermuda (November, 1875, and December, 1845). Accidental in Cuba, Porto Rico, and Hawaiian Islands (Maui).

Egg dates: British Columbia: Six records, May 15 to June 4. Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba: Five records, May 31 to June 11. Alaska: Two records, June 6 and 12.