Courting Barrow’s Goldeneyes

The majority of Barrow’s goldeneyes (Bucephala islandica) breed in Northwestern North America. (Small populations also breed in Eastern Canada and Iceland.) These ducks move slightly south into the Pacific Northwest during the winter.

Between December and April, Barrow’s goldeneyes form monogamous pairs. These pairs remain together until the male abandons the female shortly after she lays her eggs and begins incubation. To form pairs Barrow’s goldeneyes congregate in small courtship groups consisting of five to twenty individuals, male and female. The males perform elaborate courtship displays as the group mixes and mingles. Occasionally a female will respond by mimicking a move.

The display consists of many different moves including:

*the male bending his head back to touch the rump then thrusting forward while kicking up the water with his feet,

*stretching the neck backward,


*circular pumping of the head,

*turning the head side to side,

*flapping wings,

*raising the breast above the surface of the water and pointing the bill upward while opening and shutting the mouth,

*stretching the head and neck out horizontally in front near the surface of the water.

Recently I was able to watch a group of about seventeen Barrow’s goldeneyes  below the hydroelectric plant on Hat Creek near Baum Lake (Shasta County CA) as they performed their courtship displays. The entire group of ducks slowly moved about. Their actions almost resembled a choreographed dance. Males would approach females and display. The females kept circulating, as though checking out each individual male. Occasionally a pair might swim off leaving the others to continue their dance. Finally when about seven ducks remained the group dissolved and swam off in different directions. Maybe none of those ducks found a mate to their liking.

Common goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula), close cousins of Barrow’s goldeneyes, also have similar courtship displays.

More information about Barrow’s goldeneyes can be found in my earlier posts: Barrow’s Goldeneye on 03-03-2012 and Female Barrow’s Goldeneye on 03-22-2013.


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