The Bufflehead is a very small duck, with the males weighing a pound and females smaller still.
Many of you hunters will know these as “butterballs.” This is because, in the fall, they store up a large amount of fat for use during the long migration.
The male bird usually is seen as black and white. On the water, it is black on top, white below. In flight, a lot of white shows up—on the back and on the wings.
He has a prominent white patch on the back of his head, which separates him from the Goldeneyes and Scaups.
The female is rather brownish, with none of the male’s prominent contrasts. She does have a small white patch on the side of her head and a white flash on each wing.
This is one of the diving ducks. In fact, these birds always get their food by diving. And they go down quite a long way, too, to get animal material from the bottom.
Wherever they stay in the winter, they usually move into shallow bays or estuaries, but sometimes they will stay in fairly deep areas if the current is strong enough to keep the water from freezing.
Another habit of this little duck is that it always nests in trees. Being so small, the Bufflehead can make use of the old woodpecker holes. It also is quite a high-rise fancier, sometimes nesting more than 50 feet up.
How do those little tiny ducklings get down? Well, they just jump. When they are a day or so old, they are so small that they just seem to float down.
Fifty feet seems to be an awfully long way for a tiny bird, but they do it—and never seem to come to any harm.
In the spring, the courting season brings a few surprises, too. If the male is enamoured of a female, and another male starts hanging around, our Lothario will do a deep dive and come up right under his rival.
Then there is a big water fight, with wings and beaks, ducks and water all thrashing around at once until one of them gives up.
The Bufflehead is a small duck, but it makes some pretty long migrations. Most of them winter on the shore of the Atlantic—many of them going all the way from Alberta to get there.
Some go almost straight east through Northern Ontario and the Great Lakes, but others go south and then turn east.
There are some which winter around Lakes Erie and Ontario, and a few hardy souls will stick around the larger lakes in Northern Ontario.
As far as a desirable duck for hunting, this one doesn’t seem to rate very highly. For one thing, it is very small, and, in the fall, quite fat. Also, I’m told, the meat is not as tasty as that of many other ducks.
Those which live mainly on vegetation are much better to eat than those which, like the Bufflehead, live almost entirely on animal material.
It is not a very plentiful duck, either. Those tiny ducklings are easily gobbled up by predator fish, as well as by mink, muskrats, and others. And since they nest in trees, they are non-existent in open areas like the Prairies.
The Bufflehead (Bucephela albeola) certainly is a very presentable little duck—and one which graces our home in Northern Ontario quite regularly in the summer.