Barrow's Goldeneye

Bird of the Month: Barrow's Goldeneye

By Andy McCormick

PC: Mick Thompson (Barrow’s Goldeneye)

PC: Mick Thompson (Barrow’s Goldeneye)

Bucephala islandica

Length 18 in

Wingspan 28 in

Weight: 2.1 lb (950 g)

AOU Band code BAGO

Barrow’s Goldeneye is one of our Northwest winter specialties. It winters in Pacific coastal waters from Kodiak, AK to Puget Sound with smaller numbers south to northern California. Birders traveling to the Pacific Northwest are anxious to see this striking duck. The Barrow’s also breeds in Washington on inland fresh water lakes often at higher elevation in the Cascade Range (Eadie, et al). 
A Northwest Duck with an Eastern Name

The scientific name of the Barrow’s, islandica, is reflective of a small breeding area in Iceland, where the duck was first seen by Europeans. The Iceland group is small and scientists using radio telemetry have discovered another small breeding area in Quebec. However, the name can be misleading since 90% of the world’s population of Barrow’s Goldeneye live and breed in and west of the Rocky Mountains. 

Barrow’s Goldeneye is named for John Barrow (1764-1848), who was responsible for civil administration of the Royal Navy, and spearheaded the British search for a Northwest Passage across North America. Point Barrow, the Barrow Straits, and Barrow, AK are named for him (Mearns and Mearns) to honor his support of scientific exploration in both the Arctic and Antarctic. 
Barrow’s Goldeneye shares the genus Bucephala, bull headed, with the Common Goldeneye (B. clangula) and Bufflehead (B. albeola). The genus name refers to the head of an American Bison or Buffalo stemming from the Greek, bous, ox or bull, and kephale, head. The Bufflehead’s common name is a corrupted contraction of buffalo head. 

Shall We Dance? The breeding displays of Goldeneyes are readily observed in Washington as pair bonds are formed in winter. Several males will court a female and compete using head pumping, head turns from side to side, and wing flapping.  The most dramatic move is the Kick Display in which the male will swing its head over its back with its bill pointing vertically. Then, the bird kicks its feet back while throwing its head forward with the breast striking the water (Eadie, et al).  Females will engage in head throws and water flipping with the bill. You can see a short video of a pair head pumping at the Macaulay Library.

Barrow’s Goldeneyes nest in tree cavities, rock ledges, and abandoned buildings. The nest is a simple depression lined with down in which 7-10 eggs will be deposited. Incubation lasts about four weeks, and the young leave the nest after 1-2 days. First flight occurs in about eight more weeks. Population numbers appear to be stable (Kaufman). However, habitat loss due to logging of older cavity trees is a threat to future population (Eadie, et al). 
Is it Barrow’s or Common?

The Barrow’s Goldeneye is the Goldeneye with the crescent on the face of the male. The male Common Goldeneye has the white, circular spot on the face. The female Barrow’s Goldeneye has a mostly yellow bill. The female Common Goldeneye has a yellow tip on its bill. 

From a distance the Barrow’s Goldeneye looks blacker on the sides and has a black spur that extends to its breast which can be helpful in distinguishing the male from the Common Goldeneye, which has mostly white sides. The female Barrow’s Goldeneye may be distinguished from the Common by its steeper forehead and forward leaning head (Alderfer). The Barrow’s is also said to appear as if it is leaning into the wind (Dunne).