Feistiness Defined

Buffleheads landing

Male Buffleheads are the avian answer to the old childhood riddle: What’s black and white and red all over? Buffleheads have dramatic black backs, white breast and flanks, a wedge of white on their black heads – and bright red feet that would turn Dorothy green with envy. When a male Bufflehead lowers his landing gear in bright sunlight, he is a living jewel box of glory: rubies, onyx, and jet. He acquires even more jewel tones when the light catches his iridescent black feathers and transforms them into emerald and amethyst.

Meanwhile, his drab mate floats discreetly nearby, an understated sketch of charcoal and smudgy white.

Looks can be deceptive, however, for it is the female who is the star of the Bufflehead show. Although female Buffleheads are our smallest diving duck, they are packed from head to webbed toe with aggression. They nest in old woodpecker holes in the boreal forests of Alaska, Canada, and the northeast corner of our own state, where they fight all comers who try to claim a piece of their territory. The fights with other females take a very serious turn because the victor often co-opts the ducklings of the loser.

As winter gives way to spring down here in the balmy south of their range, the female Buffleheads start to ramp up their aggression. I’ve seen females fly across the entire length of the Cove to attack each other over the possession of a mate. Buffleheads keep the same mates from one year to the next, but that doesn’t mean a rival female won’t try to steal a guy who is spoken for. Meanwhile, as the females duke it out, the male in dispute puffs out his little chest and rears halfway up out of the water.  Clearly, he believes he is well worth fighting over. Ain’t I fine? you can almost hear him ask.

And I find myself humming the Carly Simon song, “You’re so vain.”

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