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These Yellow-Eyed Ducks Will Catch Your Eye

Common goldeneyes are awesome ducks. They have great colors and patterns and super-cool mating dances and diving moves, and they are crazy interesting nesters.

A common goldeneye swimming in the water.
(Photo via Shutterstock)

We get to see them in Will County during the coldest months of the year. Look for them on large lakes and rivers. Outside of our region, some choose to spend winter along the Atlantic or Pacific coasts in protected coves. They just need some open water that hasn’t iced over.

Look for them while you can. In nesting season — also known as summer — they head north to the northern United States, Canada and Alaska, setting up in the trees of the evergreen forests.

Dive into these fun common goldeneye facts below!

Fact No. 1: They are named for their bright eyes

Common goldeneyes are striking waterfowl. Look out for a medium-sized duck. Males have an iridescent dark green cap that almost looks black in some lights, and they have a round white cheek patch. Their bellies are white with some black bars on the side and back. Females have a chocolate brown cap with gray body feathers.


Words to know

Cavity: An empty space within a solid object.

Iridescent: Showing luminous colors that seem to change when seen from different angles.

Synchronize: To cause to occur at the same time or rate.

Vocalization: The act or process of producing sounds with the voice.


It is their eyes that really stand out. Adult males have bright golden-colored eyes. Females’ eyes are yellow to pale yellow to white. When they are born, they have gray-brown eyes that quickly turn to purple-blue, then blue, then green-blue. By the time they are 5 months old, their eye color is a clear pale green-yellow.

Fact No. 2: Their wings whistle

Goldeneyes are ducks, and they make lots of different duck noises. Some even sound a little like pig honks. But maybe one of their greatest sounds doesn’t come out of their mouths. When they take flight, the air going through their feathers sounds like a whistle. It gets even louder with cold air. In fact, their nickname is “the whistler.” Check out their vocalization.

Fact No. 3: They dance like they have broken necks

Goldeneyes pair up in winter. They need to attract a mate. Males have some very particular dances — 14 complex moves with names like “masthead,” bowsprit” and “head throw kick.” Did the female like what she saw? Then she will respond with moves of her own. Describing what the courtship dance looks like just does not do it justice. You need to see it to believe it.

Fact No. 4: Hatchlings jump 40 feet to the ground – the day after they hatch!

Females build nests inside tree cavities that can be 40 feet up in the air. They use whatever is available to make a bowl, like wood shavings or an old squirrel’s nest. They then pluck soft downy feathers out of their chests to line the nest and lays eggs. After about a month, the six to nine eggs hatch. The babies don’t get much time to rest. The next day they all waddle one by one to the edge of the nest cavity and hop out, falling to the ground below!

Fact No. 5: They are fast!

Common goldeneyes can fly 40 miles per hour!

Fact No. 6: They are great divers

Sometimes you will spot a group of common goldeneyes, then all of a sudden they will bob up and dive down out of sight. They are fun to watch, and sometimes a group of them will synchronize this move, diving together at the same time.

What are they doing? Diving for dinner. They crave crabs, crayfish, shrimp, mussels, water boatman, beetles, and the nymphs of dragonflies, damselflies, and mayflies. They also chase down fish eggs and small fish like sticklebacks, supine, minnows and young salmon. They are not strictly carnivores, eating a little bit of seeds and tubers too.

They like to feed on shorelines, usually diving no more than 13 feet, but they can stay underwater for a minute diving up to 20 feet below the surface.

Now get outside and find these wonderful ducks in waterways near you! There are a lot of great places to see them in the Will County forest preserves. Go to Lake Renwick Preserve — many birders have good luck at Copley Nature Park overlooking the water. There are even scopes there for those without binoculars. You might also see them at Rock Run Rookery Preserve, Monee Reservoir or Whalon Lake. Those are just a few suggestions to get you started, but anywhere there’s some water, keep your eyes peeled. You just might get a flash of that goldeneye.


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