The Northern Shoveler is the “Jimmy Durante” of the duck world with its over-sized bill. The large spoon-shaped bill is a field mark of this duck and will help you identify both sexes. Its bill is larger at its tip than at its base and is longer than the duck’s head! The bill gives the Shoveler a somewhat goofy buck tooth appearance and gives it the nick-name of “Spooney”.
The male Shoveler is 17-20″ long and has two looks. From November to March, he is in alternate (breeding) coloring and has a black head with a green sheen, a yellow eye, a black bill and orange legs. He has cinnamon colored sides and a white breast. In the non-breeding eclipse stage, the male looks like the female. He is more evenly brown with a red tinge, and still has his blue forewing and green speculum. The breeding female’s over-sized bill is orange tinged with gray and her eyes are brown. Her head and sides are a lighter brown; she has a dark eye stripe. When she is not breeding, she has mottled dark brown feathers which are still lighter in color than the eclipse male. Juveniles are similar to females but do not reach adult male plumage until late winter. You may see them with a whitish crescent in front of their eyes. When the flocks fly, they fly in bunches or loose lines and you will be able to see their blue forewing patches.
Range and Habitat
Northern Shovelers commonly found in the west; they are increasing in numbers in the east. They are always found near shallow water, usually in salt and brackish marshes, ponds and bays, but also on the prairie and the tundra. They migrate in both the spring and the fall and tend to form small flocks.
Shovelers are quiet ducks and are monogamous. The male “cluncks” and the female sounds like a Mallard. You might see the shovelers working together while feeding swimming in circles while they stir up the water. They move their bills back and forth and skim just under the water through their comb-like teeth. These comb-like teeth are called lamellae and are used as strainers, trapping food items from the water and mud.
Breeding and Nesting
The male Shoveler “brays” during courtship. The female builds the nest while the male defends his territory, then he loses total interest as incubation starts and takes off. The female lays 8-10 eggs in a shallow depression in the ground and lines it with down and grass. She conceals the nest in the vegetation, sometimes a ways from the water. If she is startled off of her nest, she might defecate on the eggs to keep predators away. The young shovelers stay hidden among the vegetation, and can swim and feed immediately. The female takes care of them until they fledge at around 52-66 days.