A common goldeneye, observed along the shoreline in winter.
A common goldeneye, observed along the shoreline in winter.
Courtesy: E. Marks, Audubon Society of Rhode Island

Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Alternate common names: Goldeneye, Whistler
Field markings: 20 inches long; males are black and white; females mostly gray.
Habitat: Open water in bays and salt ponds.
Seasonal appearance: Migratory in late fall, winter, spring.


Common goldeneye are large diving ducks most often appearing on Narragansett Bay and throughout Rhode Island in the winter. Their bodies are compact with short wings, thus requiring a long takeoff. Males are mostly white with a black back. They have a peaked, glossy green head, and a prominent round, white spot before the eye. Females are dusky gray about the body, with a dark brown head, white patches on the wings, and white neck collar.

This species may be confused with the barrow's goldeneye (Bucephala islandic), a rare visitor to the area. The male barrow's goldeneye has a crescent-shaped white spot and a glossy purple head. The hens of the two species are almost identical except for a more abrupt forehead on the barrow's goldeneye.

Life History and Behavior

These diving ducks are excellent swimmers, using their large and powerful feet to propel them underwater. When in the Bay, common goldeneye feed on mollusks as well as on seeds of eelgrass. They use their diving ability to reach the Bay floor to forage for blue mussels or small crabs, which they crush with their small, sturdy beaks or swallow whole. The common goldeneye is sometimes called a "whistler" because of the loud whirr made by its wings in flight. An observer can easily identify flocks of common goldeneye arriving to a roost by this distinctive sound.

Special Notes

Adapted from The Uncommon Guide to Common Life on Narragansett Bay. Save The Bay, 1998.