Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
The adult male common goldeneye in spring plummage is easily distinguished by a round white cheek patch located between a bright yellow eye and a black bill.
The adult female has a brown head with contrasting white eye and a grayish body. The bill is dusky gray, becoming tipped with yellow in the spring. Both sexes have conspicuous white wing markings, which along with a distinct whistling sound of the wings help to identify these birds in flight. The feet are yellow-orange in both sexes. Average weights are from 1 ¾ to 2 pounds. They are very hardy ducks and are among the last to leave in the fall and the first to arrive in the spring.
Goldeneyes winter in North America on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and inland as far north as water remains open. Several hundred regularly winter on the Missouri River in North Dakota.
The common goldeneye breeds across the continent in Canada and in the northern states from the Atlantic Coast to North Dakota ranging north to the edge of the tundra. In general, it is a breeding bird of the forested areas.
During the breeding season, common goldeneyes can be seen engaged in elaborate mating displays in which head throwing rituals are commonplace.
North Dakota is on the fringe of the common goldeneye's breeding range. The North Dakota breeding population is largely restricted to the Turtle Mountains where they nest in limited numbers. Prior to 1920 goldeneyes nested in the Devils Lake area and in Griggs, McHenry, Nelson and Ramsey counties. Generally they prefer nesting near permanent type lakes with large mature trees. In spring, goldeneyes may be seen on lakes and rivers throughout the state. They eat mainly animal matter including crustaceans, aquatic insects, mollusks, fish eggs and small fish.
Common goldeneye tree cavity nests have been found as high as 60 feet above the ground and as far as a mile from water. The nest consists of a depression in the debris at the bottom of the tree cavity and is lined with down plucked from the female's breast during egg laying and incubation. From six to 14 olive green eggs are laid, one each day, and the four-week incubation period begins full time after the last egg is laid. Shortly after incubation begins, the male abandons the female. After hatching, goldeneye ducklings remain in the nest 24-48 hours. They leave the nest in a manner similar to wood ducks.
The newly hatched ducklings feed on the surface of the water but they soon become proficient divers and secure their food in this manner. Like the young of other ducks, their food is largely animal matter. The young grow fast and are usually able to fly in eight weeks. The mother abandons the young shortly before they can fly.
It is interesting to note that common goldeneye ducklings are usually raised on large water areas where they use emergent vegetation, such as cattails and bulrushes for cover. This is the only cavity-nester of those discussed in this circular that has this preference. The other ducks discussed prefer to raise their young on small wooded ponds, streams and rivers close to protective vegetation.