Birds – American Golden-eye

(Glaucionetta clangula americana)


Length—17 to 20 inches.

Male—Head and short throat dark, glossy green; feathers on the former, puffy; a round white space at base of bill; neck all around, breast, greater part of wings, including speculum and under parts, white; wing linings dusky; rest of plumage black. Feet orange, with dusky webs; bill black or blackish green, and with large nostrils; iris bright golden.

Female—Much smaller; head and throat snuff color, and lacking the white space near the bill; fore neck white; upper parts brownish black; under parts white, shading into gray on sides and upper breast, which are waved with gray or brown ; speculum white, but with less white elsewhere on wings than male’s. Bills variable.

Range—North America, nesting from our northern boundaries to the far north, and wintering in the United States southward to Cuba.

Season—Winter resident, also spring and summer migrant in United States.

The Indians of Fraser valley tell a story of two men in one of their tribes who began to discuss whether the whistling noise made by this duck was produced by its wings or by the air rushing through its nostrils. The discussion waxed warm and furious, and soon others joined in. Sides were taken, one side claiming that the drakes, with their larger nostrils, make a louder noise than their mates, and that the scoters, which also have large nostrils, make a similar whistling sound when flying. The other side con-tended that whereas the wings of all ducks whistle more or less, the incessant beating of the golden-eye’s short, stiff wings, that cut the air like a knife, would account for the louder music. Before long the entire crowd became involved in the dispute; tomahawks were brandished and a free fight followed, according to Allan Brooks, in which a majority of the warriors were killed without settling the question—an excellent story for the Peace Societies.

Pale Faces, backed by scientific investigation, take sides with the wing whistler party. The golden-eye, in spite of its short, heavy body and small wings, covers immense distances, ninety miles an hour being the speed Audubon credited it with, and a half mile the distance at which he distinctly heard the whistle. Al-though the drake, at least, has every requisite in his vocal organs for making a noise, and the specific name, clangula, entitles him to a voice, it has never been lifted in our presence. But then this duck has been very little studied in its nesting grounds, where, if ever, a bird gives utterance to any pent-up emotion. In the desolate fur countries at the far north of Europe and America, the golden-eye duck makes a nest in a stump or hollow tree, close by the lake or river side, and covers over her large clutch of pale bluish eggs with down from her breast. As usual in the duck tribe, the drake avoids all nursery duties by joining a club of males that disport themselves at leisure during the summer moult.

Wonderfully expert swimmers and divers, their fully webbed feet, that make these accomplishments possible, so interfere with their progress on land that they visit it only rarely. One can distinctly hear the broad webs slap the ground, as, with wings partly distended to help keep a balance, the golden-eye labors awkwardly on by jerks to reach the water, where not even the loon is more at home. As the golden-eye’s flesh is rank and fishy and tough, owing to the small proportion of vegetable food it eats, and the large amount of exercise it must take to secure active prey, there can be no excuse for the sportsman’s hunting it; and, happily, there is apt to be scant reward for his efforts.

Exceedingly shy and wary, with a sentinel on the constant lookout, and associated only with those ducks that are as quick to take alarm as themselves, the whistlers are among the most difficult birds to approach. They dive at the slightest fear, swim under water like a fish, or, bounding upward with a few labored strokes from the surface of the lake, make off at a speed and at a height the tyro need not hope to overtake with a shot. During the late autumn migration the males precede their discarded mates and young by a fortnight. They continue abundant around many parts of our country, inland and on the coast, and enliven the winter desolation after most other birds have deserted us for warmer climes.

Barrow’s Golden-eye (Glaucionetta islandica), a more northern species, that is often seen in the west, may scarcely be told from the common whistler either in features or habits. A crescent-shaped white spot at the base of the bill of the drake and more purplish iridescence on his head are his distinguishing marks; but the small females of these two species are believed to be identical. In the region of the salmon canneries these ducks lose some of their native shyness and boldly gorge themselves on the decaying fish. Allan Brooks writes that ” the note is a hoarse croak.” Doubtless the common golden-eye makes some such noise also, or that close student, Charles Bonaparte, would never have named it clangula. ” They have also a peculiar mewling cry,” Brooks adds, ” made only by the males in the mating season.”