The Mighty Butterball

Tonight is my Christmas Eve, the evening before the southern zone waterfowl opener. Tomorrow is one of my favorite and most anticipated days of the year.  Although I have already hunted several times during early goose/teal and snuck up north for a day in the middle zone, the south zone is where I spend the most time.

Tonight, I will once again go over the plan for the morning, will check my gear, keep my fingers crossed my leaky waders have been patched correctly, load the decoys, pack my pop tarts and text my friends who I know will be hunting in different areas throughout the weekend.  This year, I am heading to a new to me hunting area with a couple of friends; we are hoping to find flights of wood ducks along with local mallards and geese.

While many duck hunters are fond of the striking plumage on a drake wood duck and the mallard is held in high regard for its table fare, I will have to wait a few more weeks before I start to encounter my favorite duck along its migration path.  Although it may seem trivial to most Waterfowlers, the duck that holds the top spot in my book is the mighty “butterball”. Better known to most people as the bufflehead or Bucephala albeola.

The bufflehead duck is one of the smallest ducks in North America. They only grow to about 16 inches at most. They commonly weigh only one pound as full-grown adults. They have a chunky build and a small bill.

The bufflehead is black and white. The male has a white patch on his large puffy head. Bufflehead is a form of the name “buffalo head” which also has a large and puffy head. This duck’s body is mostly white with a black back. The female is mostly gray-brown with a small white patch on its cheek.

The bufflehead is a small diving duck. In the summer, they eat mostly small freshwater aquatic insects. These include midges, dragonflies, damselflies, mayflies and caddisflies. They also eat snails and small fish.


Buffleheads only nest in North America. They are most commonly found in the forested wetlands of the northern part of the continent including Alaska and Canada. The female bufflehead lays her eggs in a hole in a tree. This makes them cavity nesters. They will find a tree with a hole made by a woodpecker and make the nest inside the tree. They lay six to 11 pale yellow to pale olive eggs usually in mid-April to May. The young hatch about a month later. After about a day of all of the eggs hatching, the female will have them leap from the tree cavity and they will head for the water.

When buffleheads migrate south for the winter, they store large fat reserves on their body. This fat is used for energy while they fly long distances. This extra fat layer is where they get their nickname “butterball”.

I hope you learned a fact or two about the bufflehead and wish everyone heading out into the marshes, rivers and lakes tomorrow the best of luck. Buy your license, respect your fellow public land hunters, enjoy the dog work and do not forget your blind snacks.


  1. Karl Winneker on November 30, 2020 at 8:55 pm

    I call Buffleheads “water quail”.
    They come in low and fast, zippy little ducks.

    • Joe Whewell on January 9, 2022 at 9:16 pm

      Been hunting divers for years, the buffleheads are one of two divers that are my favorite. We target the buffleheads specifically because of there flight patterns and speed…they also eat well…gorgeous birds that typically decoy well and have had many early morning memories at the salt water marshes hunting these fast and hardy ducks

  2. Jane Stevenson on March 24, 2022 at 7:08 pm

    We have 2 pairs lately swimming and diving the grand river in south of Eaton Rapids. Enjoyable to watch.

  3. Linda on April 30, 2022 at 10:31 am

    We have 5 pairs swimming and diving Coldwater Lake, Ovid Township. They are fun to watch in the mornings, while drinking my coffee.

  4. Brent on November 13, 2022 at 11:21 am

    Got two of these little guys on our pond today in Harbor Springs. So pretty

  5. Jim Rodgers on December 7, 2022 at 9:16 pm

    I see them late November as they start to arrive here in Georgia when their seeking to escape the frozen waters of the north. I enjoy them and many other species that migrate through here heading further south or that stay here during the winter. They are always a highlight on our shallow lake. I enjoy trying to get great pix of them. I swear it is a way more challenging to take a great pic than it is to shoot any giving species of wildlife. The last birds leaves heading north around mid to late March form central Georgia. Ive also send them along the gulf coast in February.

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