BUFFLEHEAD DUCKS - MIGHTY MITES
By Paul Dye

  A dynamic little sea-duck,  the Bufflehead is exciting to watch for both birdwatcher and aviculturist alike.  By far the smallest of the sea-ducks, Bufflehead males weigh approximately 1 pound, while the females are considerably smaller, weighing an average of 11 ounces.  Less gregarious than most other sea-duck species, Buffleheads tend to migrate and winter in small flocks of under 50 in number.  This small flock size is sometimes attributed to the pugnacious nature of the males, who are often very aggressive to each other.  Small in size with many predators, they are quick to take flight and appear to be dashing about, often in close formation and low to the water.  Moreso than with most species, they appear to be skidding to a stop when landing.  When feeding as a group they often simultaneously disappear underwater, sometimes leaving a “lookout” or two at the surface to watch for danger.

BUFFLEHEAD DRAKE - STARTING A DIVE

  Bufflehead courtship displays are extremely animated, with much chasing and head pumping on the part of the males, who also enlarge their head by erecting their bushy crest.  The chasing behavior, although occasionally directed at the females, is most often a form of territorial display used to drive other males from the area, and can be accomplished either flying or underwater.  The skidding stop so typical for Buffleheads, is often used as part of his courtship display as he flies to the females side.  It appears the female uses a “following” display, accompanied by vocalizations and a less animated head display to encourage her suitor to continue his courtship.

 

Although perhaps the highest density of Bufflehead nesting occurs in the western and southern Canadian provinces from British Columbia to northwestern Ontario, their breeding range extends north into southern Alaska, and occasionally south into the northern states.  There have been rare reports of nesting as far south as Oregon and northern California.

 

The favored nest site for this species is a tree cavity excavated by a flicker or other species of woodpecker, usually 3 to 20 feet above ground or water surface.  An early (1960) study of the species recorded entrance hole sizes ranged from 5.7 to 7.6 cm, and cavity depth ranged from 25 to 37 cm.  The cavity is often in an aspen or Douglas fir, and is located either near to or over water bodies 1 acre or larger in size.  It is not uncommon for a female to use the same site repeatedly in subsequent years if she is not driven out by predators or other cavity nesting species, such as bluebirds or tree swallows.  In a prime nesting area in British Columbia nesting densities of one nest per 25 acres of water have been observed.

 

The average clutch size for Buffleheads is 8.6 eggs for first clutches and 6.8 eggs if a renest is attempted as a result of losing the first clutch.  The usual interval for egg laying is 1 egg every 1 and ½ days.  The average incubation time is 30 days.  Possibly a result of the small size of their entrance hole offering good protection from most predators Buffleheads tend to be “tight setters”, reluctant to leave a nest while it is being examined.  Almost all breaks for food and exercise by the female away from the nest take place during evening hours.

 

The downy young usually remain in the nest for 24 hours or more after hatching.  Unlike wood ducks the female Buffleheads do not appear to use vocalizations to lure their duckling out of the nest.  After the brood has departed the nest and established their brood territory, the task of obtaining enough aquatic insect life to feed the brood begins. Almost all the food of the downies comes from this source, with the larvae of dragonflies and damselflies being preferred, along with aquatic beetles.  Very little plant material is consumed until fall and winter, when they may make up as much as 30% of the total diet.  The young Bufflehead ducklings rarely stray very far from the safety of their mothers, but in the event that they become separated it is common for them to be adopted into another brood.  Al though some females abandon their young in the preflight stage it is common for some mothers to stay with their progeny to 7 or 8 weeks of age.

 

After their breeding and/or brood rearing duties are completed, Buffleheads move to a location they feel provides enough food and isolation for molting. This location is usually a freshwater lake environment, and can be a considerable distance from their breeding area.  At this location their molt is completed in preparation for their fall migration.

 

Migration for this species can be highly variable, with some traveling extensive distances, wintering as far south as Florida and Mexico.   Others simply move to the nearest coastline, where they simply move a little farther south as freeze-up occurs.  In a mild winter Buffleheads have been known to winter as far north as coastal Maine and Alaska.  A majority of Bufflehead that do migrate a considerable distance use the Atlantic and Pacific flyways, with only about 10% using the central and Mississippi flyways for wintering.

 

IN THE AVIARY

Although popular as an aviary bird, Bufflehead remain quite expensive due to their limited, though improving, availability.  This limited availability is due to their reluctance to breed if their captive conditions aren’t completely to their liking, and the difficulty in rearing any ducklings to maturity unless they are provided with fairly extensive wet brooding facilities at a fairly early age. 

 BUFFLEHEAD PAIR

Those aviculturists that do provide for their needs find them to be an enjoyable species to keep and breed, as their lovely appearance, small size and active lifestyle make them ideal for a larger covered aviary.  In this environment they can fly, court, chase and nest in a reasonably natural setting.  Breeding Buffleheads in such a setting is easier than with pinioned birds on an open pond, however Chuck Pilling, the outstanding waterfowl breeder who was the first to breed this species proved that it could, indeed, be done, as he bred them for many years on an open pond right in downtown Seattle.  His success with pinioned birds, using nest boxes and hollowed out logs, inspired many other breeders, including myself to try.  Some of us, following his example and excellent advice, also succeeded.

 

The Mazuri Seaduck Diet, now so readily available in North America and Europe has certainly made keeping Buffleheads a lot easier than the old method of feeding them exclusively on dogfood.  I still provide a little Purina dogfood as a treat, especially on the water, as they seem to love it so.  The availability of Mazuri Waterfowl Starter has greatly simplified the rearing of this species, as the old method of starting them on tadpoles, salamanders and mealworms was a lot more work, and sometimes resulted in excessive losses when you tried to convert them to a diet of commercially available feeds.

 

Chuck Pilling was a master at studying a species in captivity and coming up with novel ideas to solve a problem encountered with that species.  In the case of Buffleheads one of his greatest contributions was the use of hollowed-out cedar logs with small entrance holes as nest sites.  As nearly as I can recall he had obtained a copy of an early Bufflehead study done by a university in British Columbia, and used the entry hole and nest cavity dimensions recorded in the study for design of his nesting logs.  Since my original Buffleheads were obtained from Chuck, I too made nest poles by the same method.  The nest entry dimension we used was 2 and 7/8 inches in diameter, and the nest cavity was 6 to 7 inches in diameter and 14 to 16 inches deep.  Once the split cedar logs were hollowed out to form entry and cavity, a plug to remove eggs was made, and the two halves were rejoined tightly and secured with package strapping material.  If used for pinioned Buffleheads a ramp with good traction is needed to allow the female to climb to the entry from the waters surface.

 

Although Bufflehead eggs can be successfully incubated in a quality incubator, and broody bantams do a really good job with them, I seem to get the strongest ducklings by letting the female incubate her own eggs almost to the point of hatching.  I transfer them to an incubator when they begin to break into their airsacs, and finish them in a hatcher tray.

 

Bufflehead hatchlings are dry brooded for a few days to a week until I’m satisfied that they are all eating the starter and are seeking out the heat lamp for heat.  They are then moved to a wet brooder with the same heat source and feed dish to reduce the stress of moving.  They are reared in the wet brooder until 1/3 to ½ grown with feathers beginning to show on their sides.  At this point they are moved outdoors to my first-stage rearing ponds where they still have a heat lamp available until I’m satisfied that they’ve “hardened off”, or adapted to outdoor conditions.

 

If you are going to pinion your young buffleheads to render them permanently flightless, it’s best done when they are 24 to 48 hours old.  At this age there is very little bleeding and almost no observable stress.  I no longer pinion my Bufflehead ducklings except for special orders, as I try to encourage my friends and customers to more fully enjoy their antics and beauty in a flight aviary.

 

For those aviculturists who would love to keep Buffleheads, but have been reluctant to try because of their small size, delicate nature and exorbitant price, I offer a few observations and suggestions.

1.      Just as with their wild relatives, captive Bufflehead fare best if a majority of their diet is of animal protein origin.  Mine do best with a basic diet of Mazuri Seaduck Diet, augmented with occasional treats of Purina High Pro Dog Meal, freeze dried krill, and white millet.  These treats are usually provided by throwing a small amount on the pond.  The millet seems to be particularly beneficial as it causes them to dive for it, increasing their time and activity on the water.

2.      Bufflehead, like many other of the seaducks, do not attempt nesting until sexually mature at 2 years of age.  Even if they appear to be fully colored up, it’s been my experience that the males are not fertile their first year.

3.      If you make the entrance hole of their nest box or pole more than 3” in diameter and they’re housed with other cavity nesters, such as Hooded Mergansers, Smew, Wood Ducks or Ring Teal, you can expect them to be bullied out of using that nest.

4.      As nesting season approaches the males get increasingly aggressive to one another.  If their enclosure does not contain more than one pond or is small in size you will need to be constantly alert to assure that the less aggressive male(s) are not killed or injured by the dominant one.

5.      When rearing young Bufflehead ducklings it’s important to move them from their dry starter brooder to a wet brooder where they can swim as early as possible after they are all observed to be eating.  This promotes proper development of their breast feathering.

6.      Because of their small body mass, if young Bufflehead develop the breast or belly “wet spot” that occasionally occurs with first year diving ducks, it is best to keep them in a sheltered enclosure with clean swimming water and a heat source until spring, or until they complete their second molt. Be careful to use a heat source, such as one of the ceramic infrared bulbs that do not provide light at night, as light may cause seasonal hormonal changes that cause them to be out of tune with the correct season of the year. 

If you’re one of those aviculturists who always dreamt of keeping Bufflehead in your aviary, and you are located in an area with a mild or cool climate, and can accomplish most of the suggestions above, try it, you’ll like it.  I sure do.

References for some of the wild Bufflehead information:
Johnsgard, Paul A., Waterfowl Of North America, Indiana University Press,
ISBN 0-253-36360-8
Todd, Frank S., Natural History of The Waterfowl, Ibis Publishing Co.,
ISBN 0-934797-11-0
Erskine, Anthony  J., Buffleheads, 1971, Information Canada Cat. no. R65-7/4

 

 

Paul & Lynn Dye
Northwest Wildfowl Farm
10114 54th Place N.E., Everett, WA 98205 USA

Phone:(425)334-8223 Fax:(425)397-8136
E-mail: dye@greatnorthern.net

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