Adult Barrows Goldeneyes are hard to tell apart from the common goldeneye. The adult males have a dark almost purple head with a white crescent on the front of their face and a black beak. They have white patches on their bodies. Adult females have a brownish head, gray body, and have a mostly yellow bill. The male Barrow’s goldeneye differs from the male common goldeneye in the fact that the common goldeneye has round white patches on the face, less black on the back of the bird, and a larger bill. For the females, the common goldeneye has a less rounded head and a bill in which only the tip is yellow.
The Barrow’s goldeneye is a quiet bird that will only make during the breeding season and during courtship. These sounds include grunts, squeaks, and croaks. When in flight, their wings will make a low whistling sound as they flap.
They are migratory birds and will winter in protected coastal waters on Vancouver Island and the surrounding coastal waters. Barrow’s goldeneye, along with many other species of sea ducks, spent much of the winter in coastal estuaries where there is protection from winter storms and plenty of feed. These estuaries provide excellent wintering and stopping places during the ducks’ migration. These diving birds dive underwater to feed. They eat aquatic insects and pond vegetation. Although, a large part of their diet consists of mussels and marine crustaceans.
The Barrow’s goldeneye is considered an arboreal bird species because much of its nesting is done in mature trees. The birds will also nest in burrows, hence their name. Barrow’s goldeneyes are not as common as the common goldeneye. Barrow’s goldeneye tends to be territorial towards other birds venturing into their domain and will go on the defense and attempt to drive other birds away, this is especially true among the drakes. This is both true on land and in the water.
They tend to breed in habitats around wooded lakes and ponds, primarily in northwestern North America. They will be in smaller numbers in eastern Canada and Iceland. Females return to the same breeding sites year after year and also tend to use the same nesting sites. The males stay with their mate through the winter and defend their territory during the breeding season, then leave for the molting site. Mating pairs often stay intact even though the male and female are apart for long periods of time over the summer during molting times. The pair then reunites in wintering areas.
We know little about the breeding habits of the Barrow’s goldeneye. After the breeding season, the birds migrate to molting sites, during this period the birds will be flightless for up to 40 days.