Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Also known as: American goldeneye, American golden-eye, cobhead, common goldeneye, common goldeneye whistler, golden-eye, whistler
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderAnseriformes
FamilyAnatidae
GenusBucephala (1)
SizeLength: 42 - 50 cm (2)
Weight770 - 996 g (2)

The goldeneye is classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List (1). 

A well-known, attractive diving duck, the goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) has distinctive plumage with marked differences in appearance between the male and female bird. During the breeding season, the male goldeneye has a glossy greenish-black head, with an oval, bold white patch at the base of the bill, bright golden-yellow eyes and brilliant white sides. The back, tail and wings are all black. Outside of the breeding season, the male goldeneye looks more like the somewhat duller female, which has a chocolate brown head, a white collar, pale yellow eyes, greyish sides and breast, and a slaty-grey back, tail and wings (3) (4). The juvenile is similar in appearance to the female, but has a more greyish-brown head (2). The goldeneye is a medium-sized duck with a compact, ‘chunky’ appearance due to its short neck, round body, and short, grey-black bill (4) (5). It is a rather quiet bird, only occasionally emitting a faint ‘krrr’ or a loud ‘zee-zee’. In flight, the wings produce a whistling or rattling sound, giving rise to the species’ alternative name, ‘whistler’ (3) (6).

Two subspecies of the goldeneye are currently recognised. The Eurasian subspecies (Bucephala clangula clangula) has a wide breeding distribution that ranges from Scandinavia to Kamchatka, Russia, with some small populations in other parts of northern Europe, including Scotland. Outside of the breeding season, this subspecies may occur further south, including in parts of the Mediterranean. The breeding range of the North American subspecies (Bucephala clangula americana) extends from Alaska east to Labrador, Canada, with this population residing as far south as Florida during the winter (2) (3) (7).

The goldeneye breeds near lakes, pools, marshes and rivers surrounded by coniferous forests with plenty of old trees that provide nesting holes. Outside of its breeding season, the goldeneye usually winters close to the shore in waters of around four metres in depth, but it may also visit inland rivers, lakes, reservoirs and gravel pits during this time (7) (8).

Feeding during the day on a wide range of invertebrates, the goldeneye captures its prey on or near to the sea or river bed after a short dive with the wings closed and tail spread. Diving for over 30 seconds to depths of four metres, it forages amongst submerged vegetation and overturns small rocks and stones (8) (9). 

The goldeneye breeds from December through to April, beginning with the male bird defending a territory and displaying in groups to attract a mate. This involves a number of displays, with the most distinctive being a ‘head-throw-kick display’, in which the male throws the head back over the body whilst emitting a growling noise and kicking the water out with its feet (3) (8). The nest is typically built 10 to 15 metres off the ground in a tree hole, and is lined with downy feathers from the female bird’s breast (10), although the female goldeneyen often lays its eggs in the nests of another female or even that of another duck species. A clutch of 8 to 11 eggs is laid and incubated by the female for up to 30 days (8). The chicks can already feed themselves when they leave the nest, so the female may abandon the chicks soon after hatching, with the chicks joining those of another female’s brood (10). 

After breeding, adult goldeneyes may travel to coastal areas, large lakes or rivers to undergo a flightless period and moult. Large gatherings of birds are common at such locations, with the male birds arriving first, and this moult period may last as long as four weeks. Many populations then undergo a southward migration, beginning in late August, with most birds arriving at the wintering grounds by early December. The female goldeneyes tend to migrate further than the males, while juveniles migrate even further. The goldeneye returns to its breeding grounds from mid-February, with its arrival timed to coincide with the thawing and reappearance of open water (8).

With a very large population, estimated in 1980 at 1.25 million birds in North America alone, the goldeneye is not currently at risk of extinction. The global population is considered stable, but some local populations have declined, most likely due to habitat loss and degradation. In its breeding grounds, forestry practices have reduced the number of old trees available to this species for nesting, while river channelization, the loss of wetlands, and pollution all threaten its wintering grounds. In addition, the increasing occurrence of acid rain in Canada threatens the goldeneye as it typically breeds around fish-less lakes of low acidity, but acid rain allows acid-tolerant fish to move into the lakes and compete with the goldeneye for its invertebrate prey (3). The number of goldeneyes was also considerably reduced in the Firth of Forth, Scotland, after a new sewage treatment scheme was introduced, resulting in decreases in food availability (8). The goldeneye is also hunted for food and as a trophy species, with around 188,000 birds killed between 1971 and 1980 in North America alone (3). 

The construction of nest boxes has allowed the goldeneye to increase in number across many parts of its range, including in Scotland, where a new breeding population was established by the provision of nest boxes at a location where the species formerly only spent the winter. This species is likely to return each year to the same nesting site, meaning such conservation measures can have great successes in restoring population numbers (3) (8). The goldeneye also occurs in a number of protected areas, including in the United Kingdom, where around a quarter of the population occurs in Special Protected Areas (11).

For more information on the goldeneye and other bird species:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
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  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1992) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 1: Ostrich to Ducks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Eadie, J.M., Mallory, M.L. and Lumsden, H.G. (1995) Common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/170/articles/introduction
  4. Royal Society for the Protection of Birds - Goldeneye (November, 2010)
    http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/g/goldeneye/index.aspx
  5. Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterström, D. and Grant, P.J. (1999) Collins Bird Guide. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, London.
  6. South Dakota Birds and Birding – Common goldeneye (November, 2010)
    http://www.sdakotabirds.com/species/common_goldeneye_info.htm
  7. Lack, P. (1986) The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland. T & A D Poyser Ltd, London.
  8. BirdLife International (November, 2010)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=494
  9. Holden, P. and Sharrock, J.T.R. (2002) The RSPB Guide to British Birds. Pan Macmillan, London.
  10. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology - All About Birds: Common goldeneye (November, 2010)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Goldeneye/id
  11. JNCC (November, 2010)
    http://www.jncc.gov.uk/