Common goldeneyes have compact bodies with large heads, relatively small, narrow bills, and short tails. The adult male has a dark head and back with very white sides and breast. There is a white oval spot on the cheek, between the dark bill and the conspicuously bright yellow eye. In good light, the male’s black head has a greenish sheen. The female’s bill is dark with a small amount of yellow near the tip; the head is brown, the body gray, and a white collar is sometimes visible around the neck. The female’s eye is pale yellow or white. The female makes a low grating au, au, and the male whistles and rattles.
Goldeneyes are diving ducks but do not need much of a running start to take flight. Flight is fast, with rapid, whistling wingbeats. They float buoyantly, dive suddenly, and are strong swimmers underwater. They are rarely seen walking on land.
Similar species: The closely related Barrow’s goldeneye is very rare in Missouri. The male has a white crescent-shaped face patch, a purple, oval head, and more extensive black on the back. The female Barrow’s goldeneye has a small, completely or partially yellow bill. Bufflehead males are similar to goldeneyes, but they have a large white spot on the back of the head (not between the bill and eye).
Length: 18 inches.
Habitat and Conservation
Goldeneyes and buffleheads are in a group of waterfowl called sea ducks and are usually found on open water of rivers and lakes. In winter, look for them on ice-free areas of lakes, including places where warm water is discharged from power plants or other industry. Their legs are very short and far to the rear of their small-winged body, making it difficult for them to stand on land. They dive in deep water, frequently searching for snails and crustaceans on the bottom.
Typically dives in deep water to forage on the bottom for aquatic invertebrates, crayfish, fish, and plants.
Common migrant and winter resident.
Present in Missouri from mid-November through the end of April. The winter range includes almost all of the Lower 48. In winter and spring, males perform dramatic courtship displays involving splashing, head-bobbing and wagging, and bending the head back so far as to touch the rump. Breeding range comprises boreal forests across much of Canada, Alaska, and extreme northern parts of the Lower 48. Like buffleheads, wood ducks, and common mergansers, goldeneyes are cavity nesters, utilizing holes originally excavated by woodpeckers or other hollow places in trees. They nest near wetlands or other water. Clutches comprise 4–9 eggs, which are incubated about a month. A day after hatching, the ducklings — beckoned by their mother, positioned perhaps 40 feet below them on the ground — hop out of the nest cavity and fall to the ground, then join the mother in swimming and foraging. There is 1 brood a year. A common goldeneye can live to be at least 20 years old.
An old nickname for this duck is the “whistler,” because of the sharp whistling sound made by the wings in flight. They have long been a popular quarry for waterfowl hunters. Like woodpeckers and other birds that nest in tree cavities, they require mature forests with snags (standing dead trees) — thus people should use forestry techniques that retain snags.
Goldeneyes help limit the populations of the large variety of aquatic insects and other aquatic animals and plants they eat. Common and Barrow’s goldeneyes, wood ducks, and hooded mergansers often lay eggs in each other’s nests, indicating a form of mutual reliance among those species, as well as with the pileated woodpeckers whose former nest holes they often utilize.