The Spirit Bird

The Spirit Bird

Frank Graham Jr.
Published: 12/07/2008


United States Geological Survey
For many years I spent a part of each winter’s day in a small cabin on the coast of eastern Maine. A wood-burning stove kept me toasty in the confined space and I worked, assiduously or otherwise, on a standard Olivetti typewriter. When I looked out a window I saw an ice-rimmed shoreline and, on the bay beyond the ice, scattered clusters of ducks. And so began my enchantment with the bufflehead.

Though the bufflehead is our smallest diving duck (adults usually weigh less than a pound), the drakes are especially stylish. The body’s neat black and white pattern carries over to the head, which is fluffed out to exaggerated proportions and bears a striking white “scarf” spreading broadly behind the eyes. The hen, drabber and smaller, sports a white half-dome of feathers below the eye. Our outdoorsy ancestors, much focused on the western frontier and its animals, took in this bigheaded look and called the species “buffalo head.” The name simply shrank through time.

As I worked or dawdled through short bleak days, these toy-like ducks gave to the bay the same jauntiness that black-capped chickadees added to the winter woods behind me. In fact, they seemed almost mirror images of each other. Chickadees, sporting gleaming white cheek patches, swung acrobatically from leafless twigs on the trembling aspens while searching for insect cocoons; similar white patches adorned the backs of the buffleheads’ dome-like heads as they bobbed among the whitecaps and abruptly disappeared underwater in pursuit of small fish and invertebrates.

I understood why oldtimers sometimes called this duck “the spirit bird.” Buoyant, almost ethereal, on the shallow, lead-colored bay, it was “now-you-see-it, now you don’t.” It would disappear abruptly, as if falling off the top of a cliff, be gone for ten or 15 seconds, and then pop up a few yards away. On occasion it burst from the water as if propelled by an invisible slingshot, already in full flight across the bay.

“It is one of the best of divers, with the plumage of its head compressed and its wings closely pressed to its sides,” A. C. Bent reported in his Life Histories of North American Wild Fowl (1925). “It can often succeed in diving at the flash of a gun and thus escape being shot.”

Spirit bird, indeed. And always an inspiriting if distant companion along a frigid, windswept coastline.