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Northern Shoveler Identification

Pair of Northern Shovelers

Northern Shoveler —  Length: 19 inches,  Wing span: 30 inches

While the green head of the male may at first suggest a Mallard, the Northern Shoveler’s wide bill and rusty flanks make it easy to identify. Northern Shovelers typically migrate in small groups, and movements can take place either at night or during the day. They migrate rather late in the spring, but early in the fall.

Ring-necked Pheasants and other ducks have been known to lay their eggs in the nests of Northern Shovelers. During winter, the specialized bill of the Northern Shoveler allows it to efficiently strain food out of the water, and it is less affected by food shortages that may affect other dabbling ducks.


Male Northern Shoveler

Photograph © Steve Wolfe. Males have reddish flanks, dark upperparts, a white breast, and a green head.

Males in nonbreeding plumage are much browner and mottled overall.  In early fall they have a white crescent on each side of the face.

Female Northern Shoveler

Photograph © Alan Wilson. Females are mostly brown, with pale edgings to the body feathers. The bill on this bird is more speckled than most. The immature Northern Shoveler is similar to the adult female.

Male Northern Shoveler

Orange legs and feet.  Photograph © Alan Wilson.

Male Northern Shoveler

The large, spatulate-like bill gives this duck its name.  Photograph © Sam Crowe.

Northern Shoveler feeding - bottoms up

Bottoms up. Like most dabbling ducks, Northern Shovelers will feed on underwater vegitation by bobbing head down.  Photograph © Sam Crowe

Norther Shoveler pair

The pair of shovelers was displaying and the Mallard on the left kept trying to interfere. Photograph © Sam Crowe.

Norther Shoveler male from back

Male with his head underwater.  Can you tell if the image shows the front of the bird or the back?  The following image will help.  Photograph © Sam Crowe.

Norther Shoveler male and female

Pairs of Northern Shovelers will sometimes swim in tight circles, apparently feeding but what may be part of a courtship display . Photograph © Sam Crowe.

Norther Shoveler female from side

Females are non-descript but the very large bill is a dead give away. Photograph © Sam Crowe.

Norther Shoveler male in flight

Large bill and colorful wing pattern. The wing pattern resembles Blue-winged Teal.  Photograph © Steve Wolfe.

Norther Shoveler

Males and a single female. The color pattern of males is distinctive, the very large bill can also usually be seen in flight. Photograph © Steve Wolfe.

Norther Shoveler male in flight

Can you spot the single female in this group? Photograph © Steve Wolfe.

Norther Shoveler male in flight

Pale underwing linings with darker trailing edge and wing tips.  Photograph © Steve Wolfe.

Norther Shoveler

Male. Photograph © Alan Wilson.

Norther Shoveler in eclipse plumage

This appears like it might be a male in non-breeding plumage.   Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

Northern Shoveler female in flight

Female in flight. The green speculum often appears dark. Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

Northern Shoveler female in flight

Generally pale wing linings, darker on the trailing half. Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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