Bucephala islandicaBarrow's goldeneye

Geographic Range

Barrow’s goldeneyes (Bucephala islandica) have a discontinuous distribution that consists of three separate populations. Approximately 150,000 to 200,000 birds are distributed west of the North American Rocky Mountains in aquatic habitats, from Montana to southeastern Alaska. There are smaller separated populations consisting of approximately 4,500 birds found in northeastern North America, from the shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, extending downward into Maine. Smaller resident populations consisting of 2,000 can also be found in Greenland and Iceland. Oddly, the eastern and western populations show little variation and are seemingly identical on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts 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 water areas of the northwestern states. Eastern populations can be localized in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and parts of the northeastern States. (Robert, et al., 2008)


During the breeding season, Barrow’s goldeneyes are primarily associated with invertebrate-rich freshwater and alkaline lakes that are surrounded by mature boreal forests, where tree cavities can be found for nesting. Although uncommon, mating Barrow’s Goldeneyes can be associated with subalpine lakes, beaver ponds, and small sloughs in western intermountain areas. Eastern populations of Barrow’s goldeneyes prefer the same conditions, but can be more assorted with 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. Preferring shallower ice-free waters, strong swimming Barrow’s goldeneyes forage in areas with strong currents, but seem to prefer slow-flowing water. (Robert, et al., 2008)

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

Physical Description

Adult Barrow’s goldeneyes are similar in appearance 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 or eclipse males resemble females. Both males and females have a short, triangular bill. Mature adults of both sexes have bright, deep yellow irises, hence the common name "goldeneye”. During flight, their high-speed wings produce 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 are also similar in appearance. (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


They are generally monogamous and form pairs while on wintering grounds. However, male Barrow’s goldeneyes can be considered polygynous. Males, also known as drakes, can form simultaneous pair bonds with two females. It is suggested that polygyny in Barrow's goldeneyes is not a common breeding strategy, but is rather an unusual occurrence. Males conduct an assortment of physical displays and 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)

It is unknown if pair bonds last over multiple years, although some researchers propose Barrow’s goldeneyes pair long-term. Forced copulation is common in waterfowl; however, it has never been documented in Barrow’s goldeneyes. Drake Barrow’s goldeneyes take several minutes before mounting a prone female; this delay implies a strong bond. (Savard, 1985; Savard, 1986)

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

  • Breeding interval
    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


Barrow’s goldeneyes are rather 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. No extensive studies on lifespan in captivity have been conducted. Several studies suggest that longevity is 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


Barrow’s goldeneyes devote their time to preening, swimming, diving, perching, flying, and foraging, with most of their time allocated in the water. Their gross morphology is built for diving and swimming, however, this hinders their ability 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. Their principal daytime activity is foraging, comprising of most of their time. They typically forage in small groups, diving synchronously to search for prey. Their remaining time consists of preening and bathing while on the surface of the water or on the shoreline. Moderately social outside of the breeding season, Barrow’s goldeneyes can be observed 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. 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)

Communication and Perception

Barrow’s goldeneyes are mainly silent, except in courtship when males gives a short "ka-KAA," and near nests, where female makes short soft "cuc" notes. In flight, their wings produce a whistling sound. Visual signals are also used in courtship and aggression. (Garrot, 2003)

Food Habits

Barrow’s goldeneyes consume a variety of aquatic organisms. Their diet consists of mussels, snails, limpets, crustaceans, isopods, fish eggs, algae, and vascular plants. Their diet likely varies regionally as well as seasonally. Blue mussels are an essential food source of 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 portion of their diet. Barrow’s goldeneyes typically 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 frequently found along rocky shorelines inhabited by mussels. Prey is swallowed while submerged under the water. Adults may dive for 10 to 50 seconds, while downy young only dabble in their first few weeks. Individuals in flocks tend to dive and surface in a highly synchronous fashion. Synchrony allows for groups to maintain cohesion and a watchful eye during foraging trips. (Beauchamp, 1992; Vermeer, 1982)

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


Barrow’s goldeneyes remain susceptible to an assortment of 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 more vulnerable, immature hatchlings. Non-native European starlings also destroy eggs in attempts to seize nest cavities. Young Barrow’s goldeneyes often escape predators by diving underwater. (Evans, et al., 2002)

Ecosystem Roles

Barrow’s goldeneyes compete for suitable nest sites with species like common goldeneyes, buffleheads, squirrels, northern flickers, and invasive species like European starlings. Barrow’s goldeneyes also compete directly with fish for prey and tend to breed and forage on fish-free lakes. Similar to many other duck species, intraspecific nest parasitism is common. Barrow’s goldeneyes are particularly noted as brood parasites. 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 are prone to infections by a variety of parasites. External parasites like leeches, lice, biting mosquitoes and flies, fleas, mites, and ticks frequently infest Barrow’s goldeneyes. Barrow’s goldeneyes are also susceptible to botulism and avian cholera. (Ballweber, 2014; Evans, et al., 2002)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Barrow’s goldeneyes help regulate populations of prey species including fish, insects, mollusks, and crustaceans. This species of duck is also actively targeted by sportsman during fall and winter hunting seasons. (Robert, et al., 2008)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

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

Conservation Status

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 assessed eastern populations and considers this species as “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 relatively stable. There are several threats that are effecting Barrow’s goldeneyes' survival and reproductive success. Commercial forestry is likely a significant threat to Barrow’s goldeneyes but the most dramatic impact on their survival is a loss of habitat. Direct threats include destruction of nests during harvest operations and a reduced number of suitable potential nest sites. Hunting also poses a large threat to Barrow’s goldeneyes. Increased disturbance from hunters can have detrimental consequences if left unregulated. Additional threats include acid rain, oil spill contamination, human disturbance, and degradation of food resources from oil exploration. (Robert, et al., 2008)


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



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


an area where a freshwater river meets the ocean and tidal influences result in fluctuations in salinity.


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


mainly lives in water that is not salty.


an animal that mainly eats seeds


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


a distribution that more or less circles the Arctic, so occurring in both the Nearctic and Palearctic biogeographic regions.

World Map

Found in northern North America and northern Europe or Asia.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


an animal that mainly eats fish


the regions of the earth that surround the north and south poles, from the north pole to 60 degrees north and from the south pole to 60 degrees south.

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


uses sight to communicate

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


2014. "BirdLife International" (On-line). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed April 21, 2014 at http://www.birdlife.org.

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 http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/.

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 http://www.jstor.org/stable/4088156.

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 http://www4.ncsu.edu/~csdepern/documents/WaterfowlWings.pdf.

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 http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/548/articles/introduction.

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 http://dx.doi.org/10.1650/0010-5422(2002)104[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). http://www.seaduckjv.org/. Accessed January 22, 2014 at http://seaduckjv.org/infoseries/bago_sppfactsheet.pdf.

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 http://www.jstor.org/stable/20455856.

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 http://www.jstor.org/stable/20456149.

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 http://www.jstor.org/stable/3676460.

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 http://www.jstor.org/stable/4086785.

Savard, J. 1986. Polygyny in Barrow's Goldeneye. The Condor, Vol. 88, No. 2: pp. 250-252. Accessed January 21, 2014 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/1368925.

Vermeer, K. 1982. Food and distribution of three Bucephala species in British Columbia waters. Wildfowl, 33/33: 22-30. Accessed March 18, 2014 at http://wildfowl.wwt.org.uk/index.php/wildfowl/article/view/646.

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 http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1650/0010-5422%282000%29102%5B0228%3ABWAFGO %5D2.0.CO%3B2.