Called also: BUTTER-BALL; BUTTER-BOX; SPIRIT DUCK; LITTLE DIPPER; BUFFALO-HEADED DUCK.
Length13.50 to 15 inches.
MaleA broad white band running from eye to eye around the nape of neck; rest of head with puffy feathers, and, like those on throat, beautifully glossed with purple, blue, and green iridescence. Other upper parts black; neck all around, wings chiefly, and under parts wholly, white. Bill dull blue; feet flesh color.
FemaleBlackish brown above, with white streak on each side of head; whitish below. Smaller than male.
RangeNorth America at large, nesting from Dakota, Iowa, and Maine northward to the fur countries; winters from the southern limit of its nesting range, or near it, to Mexico and the West Indies.
SeasonTransient spring and autumn visitor, or winter resident from November to April.
Not even a grebe or loon is more expert at diving “like a flash ” than this handsome little duck. Samuels says that ” when several of these birds are together one always remains on the surface while the others are below in search of food, and if alarmed it utters a short quack, when the others rise to the surface, and on ascertaining the cause of alarm all dive and swim off rapidly to the distance of several hundred feet.”
A bufflehead overtakes and eats little fish under water or equally nimble insects on the surface, probes the muddy bottom of the lake for small shell fish, nibbles the sea-wrack and other vegetable growth of the salt-water inlets, all the while toughening its flesh by constant exercise and making it rank by a fishy diet, until none but the hungriest of sportsmen care to bag it. Yet this duck is more than commonly suspicious and shy. It will remain just below the surface, with only its nostrils exposed to the air, for an hour after a severe fright, rather than expose its fat little body, that it prizes more highly than do those who know its worth. In any case a shot is more likely to stun than to kill a bufflehead, that, like most other diving birds, is armored with a thick, well-nigh impenetrable suit of feathers. It may fall as if mortally wounded, but the cold water usually revives it at once, and the expectant gunner looks for his victim many yards from where it is safely recovering from its recent excitement.
Because it can so illy protect itself on land, for it is a wretched walker, and doubtless also because it chooses to nest in countries where the fox and other appreciative eaters of its flesh abound, the bufflehead enters a hollow tree to lay her light buff or olive eggs. Here she sits, often in the dark, for four weary weeks, quite ignored by the mate that in February almost bobbed his head off in his frantic efforts to woo her. It is she that must carry the large brood of ducklings in her bill to the water, teach them all she knows on it, and count herself well rewarded if her plumpest babies do not fall into the jaws of a pike ready to swallow the little divers, but are spared to migrate with her to open waters when the ice locks up their food at the north.