STATUS: Fairly common in winter, spring, and late fall in Tennessee Valley and Gulf Coast regions, but occasional in summer. Uncommon in winter and rare in spring and fall in Mountain region. Rare in winter and occasional in spring in Inland Coastal Plain. Low Conservation Concern.
DESCRIPTION: The adult male is 17 to 20 inches in length and weighs about two pounds. The wingspan is 25 to 30 inches. Females are smaller, 15 inches in length and 1.8 pounds. Males in breeding plumage have an iridescent black head, crest and upper neck with a greenish tint. A white oval shaped spot on the side of the head behind the bill is a positive identification characteristic. The lower neck, breast, flanks and belly are snow white. The back is black. The tail is a brownish gray. Most of the shoulder and secondary feathers are white. The long inner secondary feathers, primary coverts, and primaries are black. The bill is short and dark gray. The bill narrows toward the front and has a yellow tip. The legs and feet are yellow. The adult female has a brown crested head and upper neck. She has a white neck ring. The lower neck and abdomen are grayish. The sides and breast are gray with some shadowing. The back is brownish. The wing coloring is similar to the male with reduced white markings. In flight, both males and females white secondary wing feathers contrast with the black primary feathers aiding in identification. Immature Goldeneyes resemble the adult female, except they have dark colored eyes and lack the yellow tipped bill.
DISTRIBUTION: Goldeneyes nest where trees are present, from central Alaska, Canada, and across the upper northern United States. When the fresh water of the breeding range freezes, they winter along the Atlantic or Pacific coast of the breeding range, in the Great Lakes, and south of the breeding range in open fresh water to the gulf coast into central Mexico.
HABITAT: Goldeneyes are cavity nesters most often nesting in hollow trees near fresh water streams or lakes. Artificial nest boxes are also used. During the fall when fresh water freezes, goldeneyes move to salt water or migrate to open fresh water.
FEEDING HABITS: The goldeneye is a diving duck, normally submerging itself and swimming to the bottom to dislodge mussels, its primary food source, during the winter. They also feed on other mollusks, small fish, and crawfish. During the breeding season, aquatic insects constitute a larger part of their diet. In the warm months, they also consume young frogs, tadpoles, and insects. They will also eat seeds, grasses and roots of aquatic vegetation. Occasionally they will dabble along muddy shorelines to obtain food.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Female goldeneyes do not breed until they are two or three years old. During mid-winter, males begin courtship display for prospective females. The male will stretch his head forward along the water surface; then snap it upward over his back, with his bill pointing up, making a coarse zee-zee call. He will kick his feet forward producing a splash in front of him. Males are territorial during the breeding season, but like many other diving ducks do not defend a general area but rather a small area around his mate.
Goldeneyes are one of the first species to migrate north in the spring, keeping pace with the thawing ice. They typically arrive on the breeding grounds in April or May. Goldeneye hens exhibit a strong homing instinct, often returning to the same nesting areas and even the same cavity each year. The best nest locations are near lakes with abundant aquatic invertebrates, but nests can occur in forests up to a mile from water. They will also use nest boxes if cavity trees are unavailable. Grass, leaves, and moss are placed in the nest and lined with down. Hens typically lay one pale green egg on alternating days until the clutch of eight to ten eggs is complete. Females occasionally lay their eggs in the nest of other cavity nesting ducks (called dump nesting). Goldeneye hens handle all the incubation duties, with the eggs hatching after approximately 30 days Males typically abandon the females a couple of weeks after incubation begins and make a molt migration. Major molting areas are the Great Lakes, James Bay, Hudson Bay and the interior lakes of Canada. While molting, they are unable to fly for about a month. Males then group into small flocks and do not associate with females until the next breeding season. During the offseason, he uses a call sounding like “jeep.”
After hatching, researchers have observed females carrying the young to the water in their bills. A lake that contains no fish is highly preferred to insure a high density of aquatic invertebrates for the young. Ducklings are capable of feeding and swimming as soon as their down has dried after hatching. Females are territorial during the brooding season, not tolerating other waterfowl nearby. Mortality of the young is highest in the first two weeks when they are vulnerable to predation by fish and mammals. Hens abandon broods before they can fly. Hatching year birds reach flight stage about 60 days after hatching.
Outside the breeding season, goldeneyes separate into small flocks of the same sex. They prefer larger bodies of water seldom going near the shoreline until late in the afternoon. A mudflat, point or rock protruding from the water is typically chosen if they desire to loaf out of the water. Goldeneyes are extremely wary birds that dive at the least hint of danger. They are one of the last birds to migrate in the fall, remaining north in the breeding range until the fresh water freezes forcing them to move to open water.