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This short-billed diving duck is called a bufflehead because its high, rounded head looks a bit too large and puffy for its body. The smallest duck in North America, the bufflehead is only 13 to 16 inches long, and has a wingspan of no more than 22 inches. Males are larger than females.
Breeding males are white underneath and have a white patch on the top of the head; females are dark brown with pale gray underneath and a less distinct head patch.
Distribution and Habitat
Buffleheads are found in boreal forests and aspen parklands of Canada and Alaska, especially in British Columbia and Alberta. Their non-breeding range extends through the continental United States into northern Mexico. They prefer small lakes or permanent freshwater ponds with no outlet. They will nest in prairie habitats only when stands of trees and water are present close by.
Unlike most ducks, buffleheads form long-term mating pairs.
They prefer to nest in old woodpecker nests or in other high tree holes, but will nest in holes in dirt banks near water if no tree nests are available. Eggs are laid in early May, with an average clutch containing 6 to 11 eggs, laid at the rate of one every two or three days. They are incubated by the female alone for 28 to 33 days. The mother leads her ducklings to water after the first day. Despite the long-term mating bond, the male takes no part in the raising of the young.
Buffleheads feed primarily on freshwater and saltwater invertebrates, but will also take some seeds.
Habits and Behaviors
Buffleheads walk on dry land only when leading their young to water.
Despite its somewhat awkward looks, the bufflehead is actually a graceful bird. It takes flight by running on the water, flying low and gradually gaining height.
To dive, a bufflehead pulls its plumage tight into its body and, with a powerful thrust, preceded by a slight forward and upward leap, plunges downward. It propels itself under the water using its feet, and "pops" back to the surface much like a cork bobber.
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This page was last updated on March 22, 2018.