The River Raisin duck population has provided ample grist for my winter offerings on this blog. I’ve focused most of my attention on the Goldeneyes but feel it would be a disservice to ignore their little cousins the Buffleheads. After all, who am I to deny publicity to the waterfowl John James Audubon called the “beautiful miniature of the Golden-Eye Duck.” The problem is that these little divers spend so much under the water that they are hard to observe. Add to this fact that there are only a few of them present on the river and you have a duck with little air time.
On a rare sunny day last week I was able to have some air time with a drake Bufflehead. The bird, although tiny, stood out amongst the giant geese and mallards milling about it. Male waterfowl are always the pretty ones. I’d never say that the females of the species are plain but would say they are practically attired in brown with attractively placed white cheek patches. Bright colors would make the gals look fat anyway. Drake Buffleheads, on the other hand, are permitted to make full use of striking black and white patterning and reflected color (iridescence).
The white patch on the head is the best field mark to identify Drake Buffleheads. From afar and on cloudy days (another word for Michigan Days) the rest of the head appears to be black or dull dark green. Full sunlight transforms this muted darkness into a rainbow of Kelly greens, Royal blues, Barney purples, Lemon yellows, and rich deep Nick ‘O the Night blacks. The stunning iridescence of the dark portion of the head is a little appreciated feature. This certainly is a feature geared toward attracting the females during courtship since it has to be seen close-up in order to be fully appreciated.
Buffleheads have many nick-names. Rainbow-head is not, regrettably, one of them. Scientifically they are burdened with the Latin name Bucephala albeola which means whitish cowhead, or something like that – referring to the distinctive large white patch on their very prominent head. The common name is a corruption of Buffalo head and yet another nod to the big-headed thing. Alternate names, such as “Butter-ball,” “Butter-box”, “Dipper,” “Marionette,” and “Spirit Duck” are body & behavior references. Butter-ball, for instance, aptly describes the chunky round body; Dipper focuses on the bird’s constant habit of diving under to search for invertebrates; and Marionette defines the manner in which it bobs up and down like a cork.
Tracking down the reasoning for “Spirit Duck” is a bit more difficult. This name is also applied to Goldeneyes from time to time, and could refer to the active – aka spirited -nature of both birds (suitable for membership in the college cheerleading squad – the big-headed kid with the flat feet). Another interpretation is that the ducks are always moving into and out of sight like a spirit (as in “Ooo-ooo-oo”). Hey, it could mean that these ducks look like mini-moonshine jugs (full of spirits) or that they look like little cows when viewed by people who are imbibing in a large quantity of spirits. O.K., I don’t really know the WHY, although I have most of my money on the first interpretation. Bufflehead is a perfectly good name for this elusive and spirited little cow-headed diving duck.