An estimated 52% of the species' North American population breeds within the Boreal Forest.
Barrow's Goldeneye favors alpine lakes, often breeding at elevations of 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) or more. It is usually found in smaller flocks than the Common Goldeneye. It feeds almost entirely on mollusks obtained by diving, but also takes an occasional snail, sea urchin, or marine worm. While there are well over a million Common Goldeneyes in North America, the population of Barrow's Goldeneyes is less than 200,000. Its patchy distribution suggests that it is an ancient species that was once more widespread and is now in decline. In the East, it is greatly outnumbered by the Common Goldeneye but may occur in flocks of hundreds in the Canadian Maritimes.