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Montana Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Barrow's Goldeneye - Bucephala islandica

Potential Species of Concern
Native Species

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S4

Agency Status
PIF: 2

External Links

General Description
Medium-sized diving duck. Total length, early-spring mass: male 48.4 cm, 1,278 g; female 43.2 cm, 818 g. Compact, chunky appearance with short neck and round body, with relatively large rounded head and short gray-black bill. Adult sexes are strongly dimorphic in size and plumage most of the year. Breeding male has striking pattern of iridescent, purplish-black head with bright, white crescent-patch between bill and eye; brilliant white sides, breast, belly and secondaries contrasted against black back, wings, and tail. Female has dark chocolate-brown head; slate-gray back, wings, and tail; and white flanks, belly, and breast. Both sexes have bright amber irides (hence the name "goldeneye"). Wing-beat is rapid with relatively deep arc; produces a distinctive "whistle." (Eadie et al. 2000).

For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.

Diagnostic Characteristics
See Tobish (1987) for details on identification of Barrow's and Common Goldeneyes in all plumages.

Species Range
Montana Range Range Descriptions

All Ranges
(Click legend blocks to view individual ranges)

Western Hemisphere Range


Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations: 5185

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


SUMMER (Feb 16 - Dec 14)
Direct Evidence of Breeding

Indirect Evidence of Breeding

No Evidence of Breeding

WINTER (Dec 15 - Feb 15)
Regularly Observed

Not Regularly Observed


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Migration periods are centered around the first week in April in western Montana, and November 20 in the Bozeman area (Bergeron et al. 1992).

Chiefly a bird of the western montane region of North America. This species is generally restricted to areas west of the Continental Divide. Prefers alkaline to freshwater lakes in parkland areas; to lesser extent, subalpine and alpine lakes, beaver ponds, and small sloughs (Eadie et al. 2000).

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
Aquatic invertebrates (insects, mollusks, crustaceans) and fish eggs. Seeds and tubers provide a small fraction of the diet (Eadie et al. 2000).

The most aggressive of the three Bucephala species; both males and females defend site-specific pair and brood territories, respectively. Pair bonds can be long-term, and males and females exhibit philopatry to breeding and wintering grounds. (Eadie et al. 2000)

Reproductive Characteristics
Cavity nester; live or dead trees, but will infrequently nest in other sites, such as rock crevices or under tree stumps. Females with breeding experience exhibit high fidelity to previous nest sites. Eggs are elliptical to oval in shape. Bluish green to olive green in color. Smooth texture, slightly glossy. Clutch size ranges from 6 to 12 eggs (Eadie et al. 2000). Chicks less than one week old in the Fortine area were seen from May 29 to July 15. Brood size averaged eight.

Timber harvest has reduced the availability of suitable cavity trees for nesting; nest boxes are a useful tool to supplement natural cavities. Recreational activities on breeding lakes can lead to increased disturbance of broods. (Eadie et al. 2000)

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Citation for data on this website:
Barrow's Goldeneye — Bucephala islandica.  Montana Field Guide.  .  Retrieved on , from