A nesting duck of the northern boreal forest, the Common Goldeneye winters broadly across the U.S. Clear lakes are preferred, as are lake with few or no fish, so there is less competition for the Common Goldeneye’s invertebrate prey.
Common Goldeneyes are sometimes known as whistlers because their wings make a loud whistling sound when flapping. This sound seems to be more pronounced when temperatures are low. Common Goldeneyes are seldom found in flocks with other ducks.
On this page
Description of the Common Goldeneye
The Common Goldeneye is a diving duck about the size of a Redhead, with a mostly black bill.
Males have white flanks reinforced by mostly white folded wings, black upperparts, and a glossy blackish head with a large, round, white spot between the eye and bill. Length: 18 in. Wingspan: 26 in.
First image is male displaying. Second image is female.
The third image may be a Common cross Barrow’s Goldeneye. Notice the elptical shape of the white on the face.
Females have gray flanks and upperparts, a brown head, and a mostly black bill with a yellow tip.
Seasonal change in appearance
Males in nonbreeding plumage are similar but darker.
The immature Common Goldeneye is similar to the adult female but lacks the yellow bill tip.
Common Goldeneyes inhabit lakes, rivers, and salt bays.
Common Goldeneyes eat crustaceans, fish, mollusks, and aquatic insects, as well as plant material on occasion.
The Common Goldeneye dives to forage.
Common Goldeneyes occur throughout most of the U.S. and Canada, breeding in northernmost portions of the U.S. north to Alaska, and wintering across most of the lower 48 states, as well as the Pacific Coast north to the Aleutians, and the Atlantic Coast north to southeastern Canada. The population is generally stable.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Common Goldeneye.
The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.
- Male, Washington, Apr.
- From below
- Male, immature, Washington, Mar.
- From below
- Female, Washington, Feb
- From below
Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History
Female Common Goldeneyes tend to winter farther south than males.
The wings of Common Goldeneyes produce a whistling sound in flight, leading to their nickname of “Whistler.”
See more: 12 Facts About Ducks
Female Common Goldeneyes give Redhead-like growl, while males produce a whistle.
Lesser Scaup – Male Lesser Scaup lack white in the face, and both male and female scaup have bluish bills.
Barrow’s Goldeneye – The much less widely distributed Barrow’s Goldeneye has a crescent-shaped white patch on its face, and significantly more black in the folded wing.
The Common Goldeneye’s nest is within a large tree cavity or in a nest box.
Number: Usually lay 7-10 eggs.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 29-30 days and leave the nest within a day or two after hatching, but cannot fly for about 8-9 weeks.
Bent Life History of the Common Goldeneye
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 Common Goldeneye – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
Spring: With the breaking up of winter in Massachusetts, when the February sun has loosened the icy fetters of our rivers and the ice cakes are floating out of our harbors, the genial warmth of advancing spring arouses amorous instincts in the breasts of the warm-blooded goldeneyes. The plumage of the drakes has reached its highest stage of perfection; their heads fairly glisten with metallic green luster, in sharp contrast with their spotless white under parts; and their feet glow with brilliant orange hues. They must seem handsome indeed to their more somber companions of the opposite sex, as they chase each other about over the water, making the spray fly in ardent combat. They are strenuous, active suitors, and their courtships are well worth watching.
Courtship: T his interesting performance, the most spectacular courtship of any of the ducks, has been fully described in detail by Mr. William Brewster (1911). Rather than attempt to quote from such an exhaustive account, I would refer the reader to this excellent article, which is well illustrated and worthy of careful study. I prefer to quote Dr. Charles W. Townsend’s (1910) account of it, which is more concise and yet quite complete; he writes:
One or more males swim restlessly back and forth and around a female. The feathers of the cheeks and crest of the male are so erected that the head looks large and round, the neck correspondingly small. As he swims along, the head is thrust out in front close to the water, occasionally dabbling at It. Suddenly he springs forward, elevating his breast and at the same time he enters on the most typical and essential part of the performance. The neck is stretched straight up, and the bill, pointing to the zenith, is opened to emit a harsh, rasping double note, zzee-at, vibratory and searching in character. The head is then quickly snapped back until the occiput touches the rump, whence it is brought forward again with a jerk to the normal position. As the head is returned to its place the bird often springs forward kicking the water in a spurt out behind, and displaying like a flash of flame the orange-colored legs.
As these courtships begin on warm days in February and last through March, probably many pairs are mated before they migrate to their breeding grounds in April. Doctor Townsend writes me that he saw a pair copulating at Barnstable, Massachusetts, on March 28. Mr. Charles F. Alford (1921) writes:
Though the habit of lying more or less prone upon the xvater is common to most females of the Anatidae when they desire to pair, the duck goldeneye carries this performance beyond all normal bounds; her behavior on such occasions being, indeed, scarcely less amazing than that of the drake. With neck outstrdtched and her body quite limp and apparently lifeless, she allows herself to drift upon the surface exactly after the manner of a dead bird. When first I witnessed this maneuver I was completely deceived, for she remained thus drifting toward the shore, and with the male swimming round her for fully 15 minutes before actual pairing took place. This occurred on February 2, 1920, a beautiful springlike day, the whole of that month being unusually mild and sunny.
Nesting: The American goldeneye, so far as I know, invariably places its nest in a cavity in a tree, preferably in a large natural cavity and often entirely open at the top. Considerable variation is shown in the selection of a suitable nesting site, which depends on the presence of hollow trees. Near Eskimo Point, on the south coast of the Labrador Peninsula, I found a nest on June 10,1909, ~n a white birch stub on the hare crest of a gravel cliff over 100 feet above the beach. The stub, which stood in an entirely open place, was 6 feet in circumference and about 18 feet high, broken and open at the top down to about 12 feet from the ground. A female goldeneye flew out of the large cavity, in which were 15 handsome, green eggs on a soft bed of rotten chips and white down. The nest was about a foot below the front edge of the cavity. I have never seen another nest in such an open and exposed situation.
Mr. Brewster (1900) found this species breeding abundantly at Lake Umbagog, in Maine, in 1907, and made some valuable and interesting observations on its breeding habits. About the location of its nest, he says:
All the whistlers’ nests which I have examined have been placed over water at heights varying from 0 or S to 50 or 60 feet and in cavities in the trunks of large hardwood trees such as elms, maples, and yellow or canoe birches. As the supply of such cavities is limited, even where dead or decaying trees abound, and as the birds have no means of enlarging or otherwise Improving them; they are not fastidious in their choice, but readily make use of any opening which can be made to serve their purpose. Thus it happens that the nest is sometimes placed at the bottom of a hollow trunk, 6, 10, or even 15 feet below the hole at which the bird enters, at others on a level with and scarce a foot back from the entrance, which is usually rounded. antI from 6 to 15 inches in diameter. but occasionally is so small and irregular that the whistler must have difficulty in forcing its bulky body through. I remember one nest to which the only access was by means of a vertical slit so narrow and jagged that it would barely admit iuy flattened hand.
In North Dakota, in 1901, we found goldeneyes nesting commonly in the timber belts around the shores of the lakes and along the streams in the Stump Lake region.
The goldeneyes choose for their nesting sites the numerous natural cavities which occur in many of the larger trees. They seem to show no preference as to the kind of tree and not much preference as to the size of the cavity, any cavity which is large enough to conceal them being satisfactory.