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Common Goldeneye vs Barrow's Goldeneye Identification

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

These diving ducks can be confusing to new birders. Read below to learn the major ID points for discerning the Common Goldeneye from the Barrow's Goldeneye.

Common Goldeneye Male (left) and Barrow's Goldeneye Male (right)
Common Goldeneye Male (left) and Barrow's Goldeneye Male (right)

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This identification guide will focus on the major identification features between the male Common and Barrow's Goldeneye. At the end of the post, we will summarize the most useful identification keys for each sex. In our comparison photos, we do include both sexes of each species, so use those comparisons for female-type birds.

Which goldeneye have you seen?

  • Common

  • Barrow's

  • Both


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Recommended Waterfowl Identification Guides

Want to get better at identifying waterfowl? Then, pick up a waterfowl-specific field guide or reference guide that can help train your eyes and brain to pick up on the subtle differences between the trickiest waterfowl. Check out our favorite waterfowl guides.

 

Common Goldeneye Identification

Left: Common Goldeneye (male - upper, female - lower) | Right: Barrow's Goldeneye (male - upper, female - lower)
Left: Common Goldeneye (male & female) | Right: Barrow's Goldeneye (male & female)

In the photo above, we can see the most obvious visual keys to Common Goldeneye identification. Let's break it down by male and female:


Male: The white spot on the face is round. The peak of the crown is in the center of the head. The majority of the body is white. The bill is robust, with a gradual incline leading into the forehead. For identification in flight, see the open-wing graphic below.


Female: The peak of the crown is more centered on its head. The forehead has a more gradual incline. The bill is usually completely dark, though it can have extensive yellow and/or orange. The bill of the female Common Goldeneye is usually larger than the Barrow's Goldeneye.


Wing Pattern: Common Goldeneye vs Barrow's Goldeneye

Open wing of the Common Goldeneye (top) and Barrow's Goldeneye (bottom)
Open wing of the Common Goldeneye (top) and Barrow's Goldeneye (bottom)

Common Goldeneye Range and Habitat

Common Goldeneye Can be found throughout much of the US in winter, spring, and fall. Habitat is not a great key to Common Goldeneye identification.


Common Goldeneye Range Map

Common Goldeneye Range Map
Common Goldeneye Range Map
 

The Crossley ID Guide: Waterfowl is one of my favorite reference guides for ducks!

 

Barrow's Goldeneye vs Common Goldeneye ID

Left: Common Goldeneye (male & female) | Right: Barrow's Goldeneye (male & female)
Left: Common Goldeneye (male & female) | Right: Barrow's Goldeneye (male & female)

Use the photo above and focus on the individuals on the right side of the photo.


Male: The white spot on the face is crescent-shaped. The peak of the crown is towards the forehead. The majority of the body is black, and there is a black "spur" at the front of the black. The bill is more petite, with a steep incline from the base of the bill to the forehead. For identification in flight, see the open-wing graphic below.


Female: The peak of the crown is at the forehead, and the back of the head has a steep decline. The bill is mostly orange, and there is a steep incline from the base of the bill to the forehead.


Wing Pattern: Barrow's Goldeneye vs Common Goldeneye


Open wing of the Common Goldeneye (top) and Barrow's Goldeneye (bottom)
Open wing of the Common Goldeneye (top) and Barrow's Goldeneye (bottom)

Barrow's Goldeneye Range and Habitat

The range of the Barrow's Goldeneye is much more restricted than the Common Goldeneye. They are found in the northcentral and northeast portions of the county during winter and spring. However, most of the population is found in the west. Habitat is not a great key to Barrow's Goldeneye identification.


Barrow's Goldeneye Range Map

Barrow's Goldeneye Range Map
Barrow's Goldeneye Range Map

Goldeneye Quiz

Test your newly acquired goldeneye skills on the following three images! Remember to check the head shape, bill size, bill shape, bill color, and back and wing pattern to make your identifications! The answers will be at the bottom of the article!

a mystery pair of ducks swims in the water
Quiz birds: What are these two goldeneye?
a mystery raft of waterfowl swim in choppy water
How many species of goldeneye are in this photo?
a mystery raft of goldeneye floats in icy water
From left to right, identify each of the birds in this photo!

Final Thoughts on Goldeneye Identification

To make identification simple, consider two major keys in goldeneye identification:


Males: Shape of the face spot and major body color.

  • Barrow's Goldeneye

    • Crescent or apostrophe

    • More black than white

  • Common Goldeneye

    • Oval

    • More white than black


Females: Color of the bill and head shape.

  • Barrow's Goldeneye

    • Steep forehead

    • Orange Bill

  • Common Goldeneye

    • Gently-sloped forehead

    • Dark bill (usually)


Using these two major points for each sex will help simplify your goldeneye conundrum(s)!


Goldeneye Quiz Answers
  1. Female and male Barrow's Goldeneye

  2. There is one species, the Barrow's Goldeneye. The second bird from the right might be a Common Goldeneye, but it gives an immature male look to me.

  3. From left to right: 10 Common Goldeneye, 2 Barrow's Goldeneye, 1 Common Goldeneye, 1 Barrow's Goldeneye


 

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