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Bufflehead Duck

If you watch a white marshmallow drop into hot chocolate and immediately pop up to the surface, you’ll have an idea of what male Bufflehead Duck looks like when it dives! It is one of the smallest diving ducks measuring in at around 13 inches and weighing only about a pound. As a sea duck, it is an excellent swimmer and diver. Bufflehead Duck|Bolsa Chica Wetlands|Huntington Beach, CAIt enthusiastically throws itself forward as it dives and feeds underwater on invertebrates and small fish, periodically popping up to the surface. While below, it uses it wings to “fly” underwater. One bird in the group usually remains on the surface as a sentry to watch for danger. The Bufflehead’s somewhat puffy head, reminiscent of a buffalo head, gives it its name.


The Bufflehead is a chunky little duck. During breeding season, the male is mostly white with a glossy black back and has a puffy greenish-purplish head with a white patch from the eye that goes around to the back of the head. He has a gray bill and pinkish legs and feet. In flight, you can see large white wing patches along his inner half of his upper wings. When it is not breeding season, the male looks like the female but the white patch on his head does not go around the back of his head. The female a dull brownish-black. She has large head, small gray bill, an oval white cheek patch and a smaller white wing patch on her secondary wing feathers. Young resemble the female but with a less distinct white patch on the head.

Range and Habitat

Bufflehead Ducks breed in Alaska and Canada around small lakes and ponds. During migration and in the winter, they are found along the coast in sheltered bays, estuaries and inlets.


The male voice is a squeaky call and the female has a hoarse quack. Most sea ducks have small wings which forces them to “run’ on the water to take off. However, because of its small size, the Bufflehead can take off without running across the water. Once in the air, it has a rapid flight and it stays close to the water. It can land on a dime with head up and feet down. It can be found in small loose flocks of about ten to fifty ducks. The Bufflehead is kind of shy and will usually take flight when approached.

Breeding and Nesting

The Bufflehead is monogamous and may stay with the same mate for many years. Courtship is quite lively and involves chasing (much of the chasing involves chasing other males away) and head pumping up and down by the male. He will enlarge his head by puffing up his crest feathers. He also loves to display by skidding to stop as he lands by his female’s side. The female almost always returns to her hatch site to nest. She lays 6–12 buff colored eggs in a nest of down, placed in a tree cavity or an old Flicker hole. She builds her nest near the water and incubates her eggs alone. After they hatch, the young are able to feed themselves insects immediately, but the female continues to care for them until they fledge. The male does not help the female raise the young. After breeding and brooding, the Bufflehead moves to a lake to molt before migration.