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Barrow's goldeneye

Bucephala islandica

What do they look like?

Adult Barrow’s goldeneyes look similar to common goldeneyes. They are a chunky-bodied, medium-sized diving duck, with a large, puffy head and a short neck. Males are slightly larger than females, averaging 48 cm in length, compared to 43 cm among females, and weigh 1278 grams, compared to 818 grams for females. Breeding males have dazzling plumage, an iridescent purplish-black, crescent-shaped head, with a single white patch on each side of the face at the base of the bill and eyes. Their sides, breast, belly, and secondary feathers are bright white and their back, wings, and tail are a deep black. These birds also have a series of seven white squares running along the sides of their body. Females have dual-colored plumage: with a rich-brown head, greyish backs, wings, and tails, and white sides, breasts, and bellies. Immature males look similar to females. Both males and females have a short, triangular bill. Both male and female adults have bright, deep yellow eyes, giving them the name "goldeneyes.” During flight, their wings make a whistling sound. (Garrot, 2003)

Barrow’s goldeneyes can be confused with common goldeneyes. However, adult male Barrow’s goldeneyes have a crescent-shaped white patch on the sides of their head, which is oval-shaped in common goldeneyes, and fewer white secondary feathers. Females are more easily confused; but female Barrow’s goldeneyes have shorter, sloping heads and broader bills, which taper abruptly to a narrower tip. Hatchlings of both species also look similar. (Garrot, 2003)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    480 to 1320 g
    16.92 to 46.52 oz
  • Range length
    43 to 48 cm
    16.93 to 18.90 in
  • Range wingspan
    68.58 to 76.2 cm
    27.00 to 30.00 in

Where do they live?

Barrow’s goldeneyes (Bucephala islandica) are found in three separate populations. About 150,000 to 200,000 birds are found west of the North American Rocky Mountains in aquatic habitats, from Montana to southeastern Alaska. There are smaller separated populations of about 4,500 birds found in northeastern North America, from the shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, down to Maine. Smaller populations of 2,000 can also be found in Greenland and Iceland. The eastern and western populations are very similar although the populations do not share similar boundaries. (Gardarsson, 1978; Robert, et al., 2008)

Wintering areas for western populations extend from southeastern Alaska to central California, with most wintering birds found in the San Francisco Bay and other large open waters of the northwestern states. Eastern population can be found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and parts of the northeastern States. (Robert, et al., 2008)

What kind of habitat do they need?

During the breeding season, Barrow’s goldeneyes are found in areas with plenty of food in freshwater and alkaline lakes surrounded by mature forests, where tree cavities can be found for nesting. Although uncommon, mating Barrow’s Goldeneyes can also be found near subalpine lakes, beaver ponds, and small sloughs in western intermountain areas. Eastern populations of Barrow’s goldeneyes prefer the same conditions, but may be near small fishless lakes. (Robert, et al., 2008)

Wintering Barrow’s goldeneyes migrate towards coastal areas and are mainly found in rocky coastal marine and estuarine habitats, including bays, inlets, harbors and large, interior lakes and rivers. These birds prefer shallow, slow-flowing ice-free waters. However, they are strong swimmers and may forage in areas with strong currents. (Robert, et al., 2008)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds
  • rivers and streams
  • coastal

How do they reproduce?

Barrow's goldeneyes usually form pairs while they are on wintering grounds, however, males sometimes breed with multiple females. Males, also known as drakes, can form pair bonds with two females at the same time, although it is rare. Males perform physical displays and make vocalizations during courtship. These displays are similar to the displays of common goldeneyes. Displays include turning their heads and pulling them back at varying speeds, holding their heads up and swinging them backwards with their bills pointed vertically, and lifting their head up and down with a straight neck. (Savard, 1985)

Barrow’s goldeneyes use abandoned nests built by other species, usually made by pileated woodpeckers and northern flickers. Their nests are in hollowed out tree cavities, typically white birch. They also use natural cavities formed in large, decaying trees for nesting. In recent decades, nesting females also use man-made nest boxes. Many female Barrow's goldeneyes do not start breeding until the age of three years. When females begin breeding, they seek out and select suitable nest sites, along with males. Once chosen, the nest is lined with downy feathers from the female’s breasts. (Robert, et al., 2010; Savard, 1985)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Barrow’s goldeneyes breed yearly, although some individuals do skip occasional years.
  • Breeding season
    These birds breed from late May to early April.
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    29 to 31 days
  • Range fledging age
    8 to 9 weeks
  • Range time to independence
    56 to 65 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    3.2 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 years

Female Barrow’s goldeneyes usually lay a clutch of around 6 to 12 blue-green or olive-green eggs, which are incubated for 29 to 31 days. Females may leave the nest occasionally during the day to forage. Young Barrow’s goldeneyes are well-developed at hatching, and are able to leave the nest within the first day. After using their long tails and sharp claws to climb the inner side of the nest cavity, young Barrow’s goldeneyes must make the long jump from the nest entrance to the ground, encouraged by the female calling to them from below. Young Barrow’s goldeneyes have been known to leap from great heights without injury because of their puffy down feathers, which cushion their fall. (Robert, et al., 2010)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female

How long do they live?

Barrow’s goldeneyes are long-lived, with a single individual reaching 18 years of age. According to the USGS, an individual Barrow’s goldeneye was banded one year after hatching in Alaska in 1965 and killed later in 1979, reaching nearly 16 years in age. Their lifespan may be linked to food availability, stable environment, and absence of disease and toxic materials such as lead and mercury. ("Longevity Records Of North American Birds", 2013; Evans, et al., 2002)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    18 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    15 (high) years

How do they behave?

Barrow’s goldeneyes spend their time preening, swimming, diving, perching, flying, and foraging, with most of their time spent in the water. Their body is built for diving and swimming, however, this makes it difficult for them to become airborne quickly. Instead of springing straight up out of the water into flight, as puddle ducks do, Barrow’s goldeneyes must run across the water to build up speed before taking off. Most of their day is spent foraging for food. They usually forage in small groups and dive into the water at the same time to search for prey. The rest of their time is spent preening and bathing while they are on the surface of the water or on the shoreline. Outside of the breeding season, Barrow’s goldeneyes can be seen in flocks of 5 to 10 and rarely in flocks of more than 50. However, migrating flocks gather with other groups into large flocks at rest sites. It is not unusual for Barrow’s goldeneyes to forage with different waterfowl species. Their flight is rapid, with strong wing beats. (Beauchamp, 1992)

  • Range territory size
    1800 to 14500 m^2

Home Range

Populations of Barrow’s goldeneyes migrate between their summer breeding ranges and wintering grounds. They are often one of the last ducks to leave their summer grounds and winter as far north as possible in ice-free areas. They can be aggressive and territorial in the spring. Males defend territory, and females defend the immediate area around the nest-site. Paired drakes defend territories on their breeding ponds until mid-incubation. The size of a breeding territory varies depending on the location but it ranges from 0.18 to 1.45 ha. Many female Barrow's goldeneyes return to the same breeding locations year after year. In some cases, these birds may also defend their winter territories. (Beauchamp, 1992; Eadie, et al., 2014)

How do they communicate with each other?

Barrow’s goldeneyes are mostly silent, except during courtship when males gives a short "ka-KAA," and near nests, where female makes short soft "cuc" notes. In flight, their wings also make a whistling sound. These birds use visual signals during courtship and aggression. (Garrot, 2003)

What do they eat?

Barrow’s goldeneyes eat many different aquatic organisms. Their diet includes mussels, snails, limpets, crustaceans, isopods, fish eggs, algae, and plants; this varies based on where they live and the time of year. Blue mussels are an important food source for Barrow’s goldeneyes in the coastal waters of British Columbia. During the spring, fish eggs, such as salmon and herring eggs, make up a large part of their diet. Barrow’s goldeneyes usually hunt for prey in water less than 4 meters deep, although they may hunt in deeper water. They prefer to forage in open water, although they can be found along rocky shorelines inhabited by mussels. These birds swallow their prey while they are submerged under water. Adults may dive for 10 to 50 seconds, while downy young only dabble in their first few weeks. These birds flock and tend to dive and surface at the same time, which helps them keep a watchful eye during foraging trips. (Beauchamp, 1992; Vermeer, 1982)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • eggs
  • insects
  • mollusks
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • Plant Foods
  • roots and tubers

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Barrow’s goldeneyes have several predators. Most predation occurs on nesting females and hatchlings. Predators include American black bears, raccoons, bald eagles, hawks, owls, and weasels such as American martens and fishers. Large predatory fish, like northern pike and muskellunges may also prey on immature hatchlings. European starlings also destroy eggs in attempts to take their nest cavities. Young Barrow’s goldeneyes often escape predators by diving underwater. (Evans, et al., 2002)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Barrow’s goldeneyes compete for nest sites with species like common goldeneyes, buffleheads, squirrels, northern flickers, and invasive species like European starlings. Barrow’s goldeneyes also compete with fish for prey and tend to breed and forage on fish-free lakes. Similar to many other duck species, Barrow's goldeneyes may lay their eggs in other goldeneyes nests, this is known as nest parasitism. Being a brood parasite has several benefits. The parasitic parent does not have to build its own nest, incubate eggs, or care for chicks. The host female, whose nest is parasitized, accepts introduced eggs as her own and raises the parasite chicks alongside her own brood. Like many ducks, Barrow’s goldeneyes may be bothered by parasites such as leeches, lice, biting mosquitoes and flies, fleas, mites, and ticks. Barrow’s goldeneyes may also become infected with botulism and avian cholera. (Ballweber, 2014; Evans, et al., 2002)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host

Do they cause problems?

There are no known adverse effects of Barrow’s goldeneyes on humans.

How do they interact with us?

Barrow’s goldeneyes help control populations of their prey including fish, insects, mollusks, and crustaceans. These ducks are also hunted by sportsman during fall and winter hunting seasons. (Robert, et al., 2008)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • food

Are they endangered?

Barrow’s goldeneyes are protected under the Canada-U.S. Migratory Birds Convention and are listed as “least concern” on the IUCN Red List. However, the Canadian Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife considered the eastern populations to be of “Special concern.” The provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador list eastern populations of Barrow’s goldeneyes as “Vulnerable”. ("BirdLife International", 2014; Robert, et al., 2008)

Populations of Barrow’s goldeneyes seem to be mostly stable; however, there are several factors that impact their survival. Commercial logging probably impacts their population but their biggest threat is from loss of habitat, which can destroy nests or limit nesting sites. If it is not regulated well, hunting could also pose a large threat to these birds. Other threats include acid rain, oil spills, human disturbance, and loss of food sources. (Robert, et al., 2008)


Michael Kulinski (author), Northern Michigan University, Alec Lindsay (editor), Northern Michigan University, Leila Siciliano Martina (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.


2014. "BirdLife International" (On-line). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed April 21, 2014 at

United States Geological Survey. Longevity Records Of North American Birds. 2013.3. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center: Jo Anna, Lutmerding. 2013. Accessed April 21, 2014 at

Ballweber, L. 2014. Waterfowl parasites. Seminars in Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine, 13/4: 197–205.

Beauchamp, G. 1992. Diving Behavior in Surf Scoters and Barrow's Goldeneyes. The Auk, Vol. 109, No. 4: 819-827. Accessed January 21, 2014 at

Carney, S. 1992. Species, age and sex identification of ducks using wing plumage. Washington, DC Jamestown, ND: US Department of the Interior, US Fish and Wildlife Service. Accessed January 22, 2014 at

Dunn, J., J. Alderfer. 2011. National Geographic field Guide to the birds of North America. Washington, DC: Random House Inc.

Eadie, J., J. Savard, M. Mallory. 2014. "Barrow's Goldeneye (Bucephala islandica)" (On-line). The Birds of North America Online. Accessed January 22, 2014 at

Evans, M., D. Lank, W. Boyd, C. Fred. 2002. A Comparison of the Characteristics and Fate of Barrow's Goldeneye and Bufflehead Nests in Nest Boxes and Natural Cavities. The Condor, 116/1: 610-619. Accessed March 16, 2014 at[0610:ACOTCA]2.0.CO;2.

Gardarsson, A. 1978. Distribution and numbers of the Barrow’s Goldeneye (Bucephala islandica) in Iceland. Natturufraedingurinn, 48: 162-191.

Garrot, d. 2003. "Sea Duck Information Series" (On-line). Accessed January 22, 2014 at

Lavers, J., J. Thompson, C. Paszkowski, . Ankney. 2006. Variation in Size and Composition of Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) and Barrow's Goldeneye (Bucephala islandica) Eggs. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, Vol. 118, No. 2: 173-177. Accessed January 22, 2014 at

Robert, M., R. Benoit, J. Savard. 2002. Relationship among Breeding, Molting, and Wintering Areas of Male Barrow's Goldeneyes (Bucephala islandica) in Eastern North America. The Auk, 119: 676-684.

Robert, M., B. Drolet, J. Savard. 2008. Habitat Features Associated with Barrow's Goldeneye Breeding in Eastern Canada. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, Vol. 120, No. 2: 320-330. Accessed January 21, 2014 at

Robert, M., M. Vaillancourt, P. Drapeau. 2010. Characteristics of nest cavities of Barrow's Goldeneyes in eastern Canada. Journal of Field Ornithology, Vol. 81, No. 3: 287-293. Accessed January 21, 2014 at

Savard, J. 1985. Evidence of Long-Term Pair Bonds in Barrow's Goldeneye (Bucephala islandica). The Auk, Vol. 102, No. 2: 389-391. Accessed January 21, 2014 at

Savard, J. 1986. Polygyny in Barrow's Goldeneye. The Condor, Vol. 88, No. 2: pp. 250-252. Accessed January 21, 2014 at

Vermeer, K. 1982. Food and distribution of three Bucephala species in British Columbia waters. Wildfowl, 33/33: 22-30. Accessed March 18, 2014 at

van de Wetering, D., F. Cooke. 2000. Body weight and feather growth of male Barrow's Goldeneye during wing molt. The Condor, Vol. 102, No. 1: 228-231. Accessed January 21, 2014 at %5D2.0.CO%3B2.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Kulinski, M. 2014. "Bucephala islandica" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed February 29, 2024 at

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