Bird of the Week: Bufflehead

Species: Bufflehead, or Bucephala albeola

Family: Anatidae (waterfowl, i.e., ducks, geese, and swans)

Star sign: Sagittarius

Rating: 15/10

Ideal Date: Zoom call …even though the Bufflehead is too old to have even an ounce of computer literacy

While plenty of members of the avian kingdom have far greater majesty, elegance, intelligence, and skill than this week’s special friend, there are few who spark as much pure delight in the hearts of men as the beguiling Bufflehead. This cute quacker is the smallest diving duck in North America (because of its small size, the resourceful Bufflehead often nests in hollows left behind by Northern Flickers, the only duck dinky enough to do so), but its small stature does nothing to diminish its big personality, which shines through in its striking plumage. In males, the body and the sides of the head are a blinding snow-white, accentuated by shimmering purple-green feathers which encircle the neck and the front of the face. This flashy patterming makes the Bufflehead as easy to spot as it is enjoyable to see. Indeed, a fact sheet published by Hinterland Who’s Who calls the Bufflehead one of the most popular ducks among waterfowl enthusiasts, a bold claim that is nevertheless difficult to argue. Even the name “Bufflehead” — a portmanteau of buffalo-head which refers to the drake’s disproportionately puffed-up head plumage — carries a certain inherent goofy zeal, shared by the likes of shenanigan, rutabaga, and bamboozle. It’s just fun to say! A suitably whimsical name for this whimsical waterfowl. 

Almost without exception, Buffleheads mate in committed monogamous pairs, using a ritual that involves a lot of head bobbing and low fly-overs above the female. Males will leave their partners at the end of the breeding season, but don’t be alarmed, because pairs will often reunite to mate multiple years in a row. Maybe romance isn’t dead, and maybe, if these lovey duckies can make long-distance work, you can too! Not only does this “diminutive diver” have an old-fashioned sense of romance, but the species is just plain old! According to All About Birds, 500,000 year old Bufflehead fossils have been uncovered all across North America, from Florida to California and all the way to Alaska. For reference, the oldest known remains of Homo Sapiens are only 300,000 years old. 

Thankfully, in the modern day, us young upstart humans haven’t yet managed to outcompete our Pleistocene pal — although the Bufflehead is scarce, it isn’t considered endangered. While some do hunt the birds as game (hunters apparently call them “Butterballs,” which would probably be considered a quirky name for any duck that wasn’t already called the Bufflehead), they aren’t very popular prey; writes Hinterland Who’s Who, “This is a duck that is more valuable to people as an object of delight than as a hunting statistic.”

Buffleheads are infrequent winter visitors to the Reed Canyon, so be sure to keep an eye out for this delightful duck. Males are famously easy to identify — watch for a little duck (smaller than a mallard) with the aforementioned bright white feathers on the body, and in big patches on the side of the head. The back is black, and the patterning around the neck and the center of its face appears dark from a distance, but resolves into blue and purple up close. The head is large, bill is petite, and the feet are pink. Females are a little more difficult: they are primarily brown, with lighter bodies, darker backs and heads, and white patches on the cheeks. Also note that the head is smaller, lacking the fluffy crest of the male. Buffleheads are usually seen alone or in mating pairs, rather than on their own, and will bob quietly on the water’s surface between making frequent, graceful dives below the surface to forage for tasty invertebrates, just as they have for countless centuries. Empires may rise and fall, whole species may be born and die out, the Earth may be swallowed in ice or boiled in heat, but the Bufflehead remains — eternal, undying, and just as cute as ever. To adapt a quote from Hinterland Who’s Who: long has this friend brightened the waters of North America, and long may it continue to do so.

By Sabrina Blasik

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