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Return Of Winter Ducks

Dear Bird Folks,

I’m looking forward to the return of our winter ducks, specifically the Buffleheads. When will they be back, and like many other birds this fall, will there be more than normal?

– Ethan, Harwich, MA


Oh, right, Ethan,

I almost forgot about ducks. With all the talk about birds coming down from Canada recently, I totally spaced off returning waterfowl. Thanks for reminding me. I’m glad someone is paying attention. I wonder what else I’ve forgotten. Wait! I think I’m supposed to pick up my wife at the dentist. I’ll be right back.

Each summer, migrating shorebirds have to struggle with the Cape’s crowded beaches, but ducks have it planned right. They wait for the sailboats, kayaks and paddleboards to be put away before returning to our ponds. When will they be back? Not as soon as they used to. It was the first weekend of November, back in 1983, when members of the Cape Cod Bird Club decided to survey the local waterfowl population. It was a good idea, except for one thing…our climate is changing. Northern ponds and lakes don’t freeze as early as they once did, which means “our” ducks are arriving later in the season. It didn’t take long for the Bird Club people to figure that out and move the survey to December. It was a good move. Those November counts produced 4,000 ducks and geese, which seem like a lot, but the December counts have nearly tripled that number. And what duck tops the list? According to a fairly recent survey, Cape Cod’s most common winter duck is your buddy, the Bufflehead. Some readers, who don’t spend much time outside in the winter, might not be familiar with Buffleheads, but these fair-weather folks are missing out on seeing one cool little duck. In fact, it may even be our littlest duck, or maybe not. We aren’t sure.

Bird watcher’s like to argue about everything and one of their many arguments revolves around North America’s smallest duck. Some insist it’s the Green-winged Teal, while others claim that honor belongs to the Bufflehead. I don’t know which is correct, but I do know which duck is the cutest. Buffleheads are by far the most adorable ducks in North America. From a distance, they appear to be totally black and white, like floating chickadees. But if the sun is out and you are able to get close enough, you’ll be surprised to see that the males’ heads have a fair amount of purple and green irradiance, much like grackles (only Buffleheads won’t empty your feeder).

Buffleheads spend their summer days a long way from here, living in the boreal forests of Canada. Like bluebirds, Buffleheads nest in tree cavities, and again like bluebirds, they have no ability to excavate their own nest holes. They must find a cavity previously hollowed out by another creature, usually a flicker. This takes a lot of searching, but Buffleheads actually like to go house hunting. In fact, even after their nesting duties have been completed, the female will continue to inspect possible nest sites for future use. They are like the people who buy a new house, but continue to read real estate ads and attend open houses, just in case they’ve missed something better.

Canada is a wonderful country, but it’s not very duck friendly in the winter. Buffleheads from as far away as Saskatchewan and Manitoba head our way when their breeding season is over. Many of the other duck species found on Cape Cod are habitat specific. They either prefer shallow bays, deep lakes or the open ocean, but Buffleheads aren’t fussy. You can see them in fresh or salt water, in flowing rivers or quiet ponds. I’ve even seen Buffleheads diving in flooded bogs, possibly searching for cranberry-flavored aquatic insects, which I hear are loaded with vitamin C.

The Bufflehead is so named for the male’s disproportionately large head. In other words, this petite duck is said to be buffalo-headed, which seems a little harsh. Can you imagine all the teasing it must get from the other birds? Well, all the other birds except the Yellow-rumped Warbler. Yellow-rumps know what it’s like to have an awkward name. Funny name aside, Buffleheads are one of the few ducks that remain with the same mate for several breeding seasons. Most other species start from scratch each spring, but not the Buffalo-heads. Like crows, Buffleheads also are purported to have a designated lookout. While the rest of the flock is diving for food, one or two others will remain on the surface to watch for trouble. Really? Can they do that? I mean, how do the birds on the surface communicate with the ones underwater? Do they dive down to tell them about the danger or wait for them to resurface? I wouldn’t do either. If I was a guard duck and saw trouble coming, I’d be like, “Bye.”

So far, Ethan, reports of returning Buffleheads have been sparse, but they’ll become more abundant in the coming weeks. Also, the recent wave of northern finches has nothing to do with ducks. I don’t expect to see a noticeable increase in the Cape’s duck population this year, unless things really freeze-up everywhere else. And if that happens, we all could be in for a tough winter. Just remember to dress warm and take plenty of vitamin C, but not by eating cranberry-flavored aquatic insects. They aren’t as delicious as they sound.