Northern Shoveler

Anas clypeata

Northern Shoveler - Male
Northern Shoveler - Male. Britta Heise

Aptly nicknamed the spoonbill, the northern shoveler has the largest bill of any duck in North America. The bill is longer than the duck's head, and has a flattened wide tip perfect for "shoveling" along the water's surface for food.

Common Name: Northern Shoveler, Shoveler, Spoonbill

Scientific Name: Spatula clypeata (formerly Anas clypeata)

Scientific Family: Anatidae

Appearance:

  • Bill: Broad, spatulate, longer than the head, black on males and smudged orange-gray on females
  • Size: 18-20 inches long with 29-31-inch wingspan, large bill, short tail
  • Colors: Black, iridescent green, buff, white, chestnut, brown, orange, powder blue, gray
  • Markings: Dimorphic species. Males have an iridescent green head that shows black when in shadow or poor light. The breast is white while the abdomen and flanks are chestnut with a white patch at the rear. The dark back shows some brown mottling and white streaking. The black rump may also show iridescent green. Females are mottled brown, buff and black overall with darker upperparts, finer streaking on the head and a faint dark eye line. Both genders have yellow eyes, bright orange legs and feet, an iridescent green speculum and a powder blue wing patch visible in flight.

    Juveniles look similar to adult females but have a grayish wash on the head, neck and upperparts until they molt into their adult plumage.

Foods: Aquatic plants, aquatic insects, mollusks (See: Omnivorous)

Habitat and Migration:

These ducks prefer freshwater lakes, marshes and wetlands with shallow muddy edges. Their summer range extends from Alaska through western and central Canada south to the mountain regions of Colorado and northern New Mexico and as far east as the St. Lawrence River and Massachusetts Bay.

In winter, northern shovelers migrate to the Pacific coast and the southern United States, as well as into the Caribbean, Mexico and northern South America. These birds can be found year-round in parts of the mountain west, including Utah, southern Idaho and eastern Oregon and Washington.

Northern shovelers are found in similar habitats in Europe and Asia, staying year-round in parts of the United Kingdom, France and around the Mediterranean Sea. In winter, these ducks spread out to much of southern Europe, northern Africa and the Nile River region and stretching through the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia into eastern China and Japan. During the breeding season, these ducks are more common in Scandinavia, eastern Europe, Russia and China.

Vocalizations:

These ducks are not very vocal, though males do use different calls as part of their courtship behavior. Typical calls include a slow, nasal bray with only a few syllables, as well as a noisy rattle upon takeoff.

Behavior:

Northern shovelers are typically found in pairs or alone during the breeding season, but can gather in much larger flocks mixed with other types of ducks, particularly teal, during the winter. This is a dabbling duck but it rarely tips up to feed, and instead skims its broad bill along the surface of the water to strain insects and plants through the lamellae that line the edges of the broad bill.

When taking flight, these ducks leap quickly into the air for an abrupt takeoff.

Reproduction:

These are monogamous ducks and mate after a courtship display that includes different calls, wing flapping and head dipping. The female builds a shallow scrape nest that may be close to water or could be farther from water in a grassy area, and the depression is lined with down, dry grass and weeds.

The elliptically-shaped eggs are olive, buff or greenish, and there are 5-20 eggs in a typical brood. The female parent incubates the eggs for 22-26 days, and the precocial young can leave the nest within hours of hatching. The female parent will care for the young ducklings and lead them to food for an additional 40-65 days until their first flight. Mated pairs of northern shovelers only raise one brood per year.

Attracting Northern Shovelers:

Like all ducks, the northern shoveler is not a typical backyard bird. Birders interested in seeing this brightly patterned bird, however, can visit a variety of shallow marshlands where insecticide use is minimal and wetland edges are allowed to erode to produce mud and weeds for these ducks to forage.

Conservation:

While these ducks are widespread and not considered endangered, they are at risk from toxic contamination, fishing line tangles and similar threats. Habitat preservation will help conserve their numbers, and in many areas, northern shovelers are carefully managed as a game species for regulated hunting.

Similar Birds:

Photo – Northern Shoveler – Male © Britta Heise
Photo – Northern Shoveler – Female © Brendan Lally