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Learning the Birds
Mon July 9, 2012
Buffleheads: The Most Adorable of Ducks
If koalas are cuter than the average bear, then I contend that Buffleheads are most adorable of ducks. Perhaps we are naturally attracted to black and white creatures, or maybe everything is cuter when it comes in black and white. The best example I can site is the Bufflehead. Even the name is cute.
Bufflehead is short for, "Buffalo head," so named because the head is large in relation to the rest of the body. The Latin name, "Bucephala albeola," is from the Greek meaning, "bull headed and a little white." From a distance, buffleheads appear to be graphically back and white, in fact, Bufflehead black and whites are so cleverly assembled that a swimming male appears to be a white bird with black details, while a male in flight appears to be white with details in black. Swimming males appear to be blinding white underneath with a black back and a black ski mask worn backwards over the face. A blue grey bill pops out from black face where the dark eyes are hidden, and on the back of the head the ski mask opening is white. Another way to think of it is this, "A large white bite has been taken out of the back of that big, black buffalo head."
Even for the profoundly color blind, such a graphic bird would be a treat for the eyes, and in this, buffalo heads do not disappoint. Yet, alas, for our color blind brethren, the bufflehead breeding color scheme is subtler than it may first appear. The black on the back of the head of a male is overlayed with iridescent purple, blue, and green. Different colors predominate in different lights. The effect is really quite spectacular. Female buffleheads are not very fancy in their muted grays, but in their own way, they are just as appealing. Sooty, gray feathers cover most of the body, the breast is lighter gray, and the head is nearly black. The true beauty secret of the bufflehead gal is a sweet patch of white across each cheek. This white blush is applied just where a very young girl might dab her mother's rouge, putting the finishing touch on the face of a loveable duck.
The appeal of bufflehead ducks is not limited to their plumage, but extends to their physical proportions as well. They are about 13 inches long and weigh 13 ounces. These plump, little compact ducks are small enough to nest in woodpecker holes, and in fact the abandoned cavities of the northern flickers are the favorite nesting spots for these diving ducks. Buffleheads are cavity nesters, but cannot dig their own with webbed feet and a duck's bill, so they must appropriate the cavity nests of others. Most nesting holes are about 10 feet off the ground. A duck nesting in a hole in a tree calls up an unusual mental image. Females search for nest sites by perching on branches, and cling to the entrance. Odd behavior for web footed birds. Such nesting strategy leads to an early dilemma for the very young. Hours after hatching, they follow their mother, jumping from the nest to the ground. Bufflehead survival proves that we should never underestimate a cuter than average duck.