Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola): Barry Kent MacKay

This oil painting is an approximately life-size rendering of a small duck and one that is a favourite of mine and most bird-savvy folks I know.  The Bufflehead weighs only about 272 to 635 grams (about 9.6 ounces to less than 1½ pounds) making them small enough to nest in tree cavities originally excavated by flickers, which are medium-sized woodpeckers.  The English name is a corruption of “buffalo-head”, a reference to the large-headed look imparted to the birds, especially the males such as I’ve shown, by the long and fluffy feathers of the head.  The female’s apparent head size is somewhat more proportionate, and I’m including a much older painting, in acrylics, I once did of a female with part of her brood, and a still older oil painting of a pair of Buffleheads in flight.  They nest primarily in ponds, including beaver ponds, and small lakes in boreal and northern forests up to the treeline.  But as they are highly migratory, common and widely distributed across the continent, they can be found at one time or another on water virtually anywhere in North America south of the tundra. 

Although Buffleheads are diving ducks, who seek both edible underwater vegetation and animal life, including small fish, aquatic insects, mollusks, crustaceans and fish roe, they like relatively shallow water, up to about four or five meters deep.  I see them every spring and fall on a man-made pond near where I live, and while it freezes over, they are common in the winter along the Lake Ontario waterfront, associating with their relatives, the Common Goldeneyes, along with Long-tailed Ducks, scaup, mergansers and other migratory diving ducks.  They very rarely show up in western Europe.

The generic name, Bucephala (reminding us of the famous horse, Bucephalus, owned by Alexander the Great) means “bull-headed”, derived from Ancient Greek, while the specific name, albeola, comes from the Latin word, albus, meaning white.  On average they lay about 9 eggs (6 to 11) which the hen incubates for a month.  The babies, once they’ve all hatched and dried, must make the perilous jump from a hole that may be several meters above ground, down to the ground (or water), but they are adapted to do this, and literally bounce upon hitting the earth, the body compressing to absorb kinetic force with no harm done, the peril more apparent than real. They then make a beeline to the nearest water, and relative safety, although still at risk from large fish, snakes, mink and birds of prey.

In spite of the tiny amount of meat on them, they are hunted, however their numbers remain relatively stable.  They are monogamous, and the female will return to the same nest site the following year.  The painting is in oils on compressed hardboard (Masonite), is 16” X 12” and was used on the cover of the current Ontario Birds, Vol. 37, No: 1.

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator

31 Colonel Butler Drive

Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada

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