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.
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.
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Description of the Northern Shoveler
The Northern Shoveler is a dabbling duck with a strikingly large bill.
Males have reddish flanks, dark upperparts, a white breast, and a green head. Length: 19 in. Wingspan: 30 in.
Females are mostly brown, with pale edgings to the body feathers.
Seasonal change in appearance
Males in nonbreeding plumage are much browner and mottled overall. In early fall they have a white crescent on each side of the face.
The immature Northern Shoveler is similar to the adult female.
Northern Shovelers inhabit ponds, lakes, and marshes, as well as salt bays.
Northern Shovelers primarily eat seeds and other plant material and aquatic invertebrates.
The Northern Shoveler uses its wide bill to forage by straining surface material from the water.
Northern Shovelers occur throughout much of the U.S. and Canada, breeding in the central and western portions of the U.S. north to Alaska, and wintering across a broad swath of the southern U.S., as well as the Pacific states and the Atlantic Coast. The population has increased in recent decades.
The large, rounded bill has earned the Northern Shoveler the nickname of “spoonbill.”
Northern Shovelers are the most territorial of dabbling ducks in North America.
Northern Shovelers have a holarctic distribution, but are rather poorly studied in Asia.
Female Northern Shovelers give a hoarse “quack” similar to Canvasbacks or Redheads. Males give a two-syllable grunt.
- The very large bill helps separate the American Wigeon from other dabbling ducks.
The Northern Shoveler nest is a shallow depression lined with grasses, weeds, and down, and situated on land close to water.
Number: Usually lay 8-12 eggs.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 22-26 days and leave the nest almost immediately, but cannot fly for 6-8 weeks.
Bent Life History of the Northern Shoveler
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Northern Shoveler – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
SPATULA CLYPEATA (Linnaeus)
The little shoveller is one of the best known and the most widely distributed ducks in the world; by its peculiar spatulate bill and by the striking color pattern of the drake it is easily recognized; it is universally common over nearly all of the continents of North America, Europe, and Asia, wandering south in winter to northern South America and Africa and even to Australia. It is essentially a freshwater duck at all seasons, never resorting to the seacoasts except when forced to by stress of weather; it is a bog-loving species, fond of inland sloughs, marshes, streams, and ponds, where it can dabble in the shallows like a veritable mud lark. It is. always associated in my mind with the shallow pond holes and sluggish creeks which are so characteristic of the wet, grassy meadows of the prairie region, where pairs of these handsome birds are so frequently seen jumping into the air, surprised by a passing train or wagon.
Spring: The shoveller is not a hardy bird and is therefore not an early migrant in the spring; it comes along with the gadwall and the baldpate after the ice has entirely left the sloughs. The migration in the south is well under way before the end of March, hut they do not wholly disappear from Louisiana until early in May and the first arrivals do not reach northern Alaska until about the middle of May. On the spring migration the birds are in small flocks, frequenting the ponds and rivers, usually not associating much with other species. Soon after their arrival on their breeding grounds they spread out among the sloughs, creeks, and marshes, breaking up into pairs or small parties of three or four.
Courtship: The courtship of the shoveller does not amount to very much as a spectacular performance; Millais (1902) describes it, as follows:
The spring courtship on the part of the male shoveler is both quiet and undemonstrative, nor does his ladylove betray any particular emotion. He swims slowly up to her, uttering a low guttural croak, like the words konk, konk, and at the same time elevating his head and neck and jerking his bill upwards. The female then bows in recognition, and both proceed to swim slowly round in circles, one behind the other, with the water running through their bills.
A somewhat unusual circumstance in the matrimonial arrangements of this duck is the prevalence of polyandry where circumstances seem to call for it, and the amiability with which it is accepted by the united drakes. As a rule, where the sexes are equal in a breeding haunt the male and female pair and keep together in the usual way; hut where there is a preponderance of males it is quite common to see a female with two males constantly in attendance, and these two husbands will remain with her, apparently in complete amity, until she has commenced to sit. The custom is, of course, quite common in the case of mallards, but with them there is a certain amount of jealousy on the part of the males, either of whom will drive off and, if possible, keep away altogether, his marital partner. Somewhat remarkable, too, is the fact that after two adult shovelers have paired, the additional male is generally a bird of the previous year whose plumage is only partially complete. Possibly this may be due to the misfortune of the young Lothario, who, finding that most of the young females of the previous year have gone off by themselves and will not pair, must con- tent himself with such favor as he may find with an older and already mated bird. Certainly, on Loch Spynie, in the month of May, I have seen quite as many trios as pairs of shovelers, and in nearly every case the third bird was in immature plumage.
It also indulges in spirited courtship flights, in which two males often pursue a single female in an aerial love chase, exhibiting their wonderful powers of flight with swift dashes and rapid turnings until one of the males finds himself outclassed.
Nesting: In North Dakota in 1901 we found the shoveller evenly distributed everywhere, one of the commonest ducks, frequenting the same localities as the blue-winged teal and equally tame. We saw them frequently flying about in pairs, up to the middle of June, from which I inferred that their sets were not complete until about that time. In that region the nesting ground of the shoveller was the broad expanse of virgin prairie, often far away from the nearest water, some- times on high dry ground and sometimes in moist meadow land or near a slough or pond. The first nest that we found was in the center of a hollow in the prairie between two knolls, where the ground was moist but not actually wet, and where the grass grew thick and lux- uriantly. The nest was well hidden in the thick, green grass, so that we never should have found it if we had not flushed the bird within 10 feet of us. It was merely a depression in the ground, well lined with dry grasses, and sparingly lined with gray down around the eggs; more down would probably have been added as incubation advanced. The 10 eggs which it contained were perfectly fresh when collected on June 3.
The second nest was found on June 7 while driving across the prairie in Nelson County. We had stopped to explore an extensive tract of low “badger brush,” looking for the nest of a pair of short- eared owls which were flying about, as if interested in the locality. We were apparently a long distance from any water, and while re- turning to our wagon over a high dry knoll, flushed the duck from her nest, which was only partially concealed in the short prairie grass. The slight hollow in the ground was lined with dead grasses and a plentiful supply of down. It contained 11 eggs which were too far advanced in incubation to save. Although the shoveller frequently breeds in open and exposed situations at a long distance from water, I think it prefers to nest in the rank grass around the boggy edges of a slough or pond.
In southwestern Saskatchewan in 1905 and 1906 we found shovellers everywhere abundant, breeding on the islands, on the meadows near the lakes, and on the prairies. On that wonderful duck island in Crane Lake, on June 17, 1905, we found 7 nests of the shoveller: 2 with 8 eggs, 1 with 9, 2 with 10, and 2 with 11; the nests were located in the long grass and under rosebushes, scattered indiscriminately among the nests of mallards, gadwalls, baldpates, green-winged and blue-winged teals, pintails, and lesser scaup ducks; this island has been more fully described under the ga.dwall. The nests were very much like those of the other ducks, hollows scooped out in the ground, sparingly lined with dry grass and weeds and surrounded by a rim of down; as incubation advances the supply of down increases until there is enough to cover the eggs when the duck leaves the nest.
I believe that the above-described nests illustrate the normal nest- ing habits of the shoveller, but Mr. Edward Arnold (1894) records a nest which “was built in a heavy patch of scrub poplars,” in Mani- toba. Mr. W. Otto Emerson (1901) thus describes a nest which he found in California in an exceedingly exposed situation in a salt marsh:
After working over the marsh for several hours I started back and when half way across I again saw a pair of ducks headed inland, hut thought nothing of it until a single duck started up 10 feet from me and 300 yards from the mainland. On going to the spot there lay a nest in open sight on the bare ground among the saltweed. It was not over 4 inches off the ground and contained 14 eggs. The nest was com- posed of dry stems of the saitweed. lined with down and a few feathers from the parent bird, and measured 14 inches across the top with a depth of 5 inches.
The down in the shoveller’s nest is larger than that of the teals, but smaller and darker than that of the pintail; it varies in color from dark “drab” to light “hair brown,” with large grayish-white centers. The breast feathers in the nest are quite distinctive; they have large rounded gray centers, with broad buff and white tips and margins.
Eggs: The shoveller is said to lay from 6 to 14 eggs, but the set usually consists of from 10 to 12 eggs. Only one brood is normally raised. In color and texture the eggs are strikingly like those of the mallard and pintail; I have never been able to detect any constant difference between the three in these respects, the individual vari- ations in all three overlapping; but the shoveller’s eggs are, of course, smaller and usually more elongated. In shape they are nearly ellipti- cal ovate or elliptical oval. The color varies from a very pale olive buff to a very pale greenish gray. The shell is thin and smooth, with very little luster.
The measurements of 177 eggs in various collections average 52.2 by 37 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 58 by 38.5, 54.5 by 39, 48 by 37, and 50.5 by 34.5 millimeters.
Young: Morris (1903) gives the period of incubation as “three weeks”; others give it as from 21 to 23 days. Incubation is per- formed entirely by the female, though the male does not wholly desert her during the first part, at least, of the process and is often quite solicitous if the nest is disturbed. But before the broods are hatched the males congregate in small flocks in the sloughs and ponds, leaving the care of the young to their mates. The young are led to the nearest water by the female, carefully guarded and taught to feed on insects and soft animal and vegetable food. The young are expert divers; we had considerable difficulty in catching what specimens of grown young we needed. By the time that the young are fully fledged, the molting season of the adults is over, and the old and young birds are joined together in flocks.
Plumages: Even when first hatched the young shoveller’s bill is decidedly longer and more spatulate than that of the young mallard, and it grows amazingly fast, so that when two weeks old there is no difficulty in identifying the species. The color of the downy young above varies from ”olive brown,” or ”sepia,” to ”huffy brown,” darker on the crown, which is “clove brown” or “olive brown”; the color of the back extends far down onto the sides of the chest and on th~ flanks. The under parts vary from “maize yellow’s or “cream buff to ”cartridge buff~~ or ”ivory yellow~~ ; this color deepens to “chamois” on the cheeks. There is a stripe of “olive brown” through the eye, including the loral and postocular region, also an auricular spot of the same. There is a light buffy spot on each side of the back, behind the wings, and one on each side of the rump. The buffy or chamois colored stripes above the eyes are well marked and often confluent on the forehead. All of these colors fade out to paler and grayer shades as the bird grows older.
The flaiik feathers are the first to appear, then the mottled feathers of the breast and belly, together with the scapular and head plumage, then the tail and lastly the wings. Birds in my collection, as large as blue-winged teal, collected July 17 and 18 in Manitoba, are still downy on the back of the neck and rump, with the wing quills just. bursting the sheaths; they evidently would not be able to fly until fully grown in August. In this first plumage the sexes are alike, but the male is slightly larger.
Millais (1902) gives the following full account of the progress toward maturity:
By the middle of September we see the molt beginning, and from this date till the following February there is no surface-feeding duck whose plumage change progresses so slowly. In its ordinary course there is little difference between Sep- tember and January, but toward the end of the latter month a big flush of new feathers takes place, either on the whole of the breast down to the vent, or amongst the feathers of the lower neck, where a few pure white feathers appear. In very advanced birds the molt extends over the whole of the lower neck and breast. By the middJe of March, numbers of the dark-green feathers begin to show themselves on the cheeks, and in April there is an accession of white feathers on the scapulars. In May and June the whole plumage continues to trend toward maturity, and many new feathers which have come in the plumage on the scapulars and sides of the neck are changing color all the time, from a half compromise with the old first plumage to that of the adult bird. Nevertheless, the whole bird can not be said to be anything like com- plete, and still undergoes feather recoloration and molt until the full and complete molt of the eclipse takes place at the beginning of July.
The young drake then molts the wings for the first time in August, and, passing through the usual autumnal color change and molt, arrives at a plumage dull and incomplete, yet resembling that of the adult male. Thus we see that in gaining adult dress, this bird takes the same time as the widgeon, namely, about 17 months. His plumage, however, so far as my experience goes, is never absolutely perfect until the third season. In that year his full breeding dress s&~ems to attain perfec- tion earlier than at any previous season. Amongst those that I have kept in confine- ment from immaturity the bill seemed blacker, and all the colors of the plumage more brilliant, when they reached this age. Male shovelers of 21 months old gener- ally have a number of arrowhead-brown bars on the sides of the white breast shield and upper scapulars. The presence of these broad-arrow marks on the white ch~st must, however, not be taken as indisputable evidence of immaturity, for many per- fectly adult males retain year after year one or two of these markings, whilst others have a wholly white shield. It will~ nevertheless be found that these markings, together with a sandy-edged breast, are constant signs of difference between the young and the old males: for in’the first spring the immatures of all the surface feeders, except the mallard, whose appearance is largely due to condition and feed- ing, always lack the color, size, and finish of the perfectly adult drake.
Similar changes take place in the young female, a complete new dress being acquired, except on the wings, by January, in which young birds can be distinguished from old birds by their dark shoulders and wings; the fully adult dress is not acquired until the following October or at the age of 17 months. Millais (1902) also says that the immature females do not breed during their first spring.
The midsummer eclipse plumage of the male is quite complete, and closely resembles the female plumage, except for the wings, which, of course, are molted only once in August, and for the breast and belly, which remains largely brown. The molt into the eclipse begins about the 1st of July and the change is very rapid. The molt out of the eclipse in the fall is more protracted; it sometimes does not begin until the middle of October and is not complete until December or later. Adult males can always be recognized by the wings.
Food: In feeding the shoveller uses its highly specialized bill to advantage. All the surface-feeding ducks have the edges of the upper and lower mandibles more or less well supplied with rows of comblike teeth or lan~ieIlae through which the water and mud is sifted to obtain food; in some species these are somewhat rudimen- tary, but in the shoveller they reach their highest development because the shoveller is more essentially a surface feeder than any other duck, dabbling along the surface to sift out what small particles of food it can find, shovelling in the soft muddy shallows and straining out its food much after the manner of a right whale. The tongue, the roof of the mouth, and the soft edges of the broad bill are all well supplied with sensitive nerves of touch and taste, which helps the bird to retain what it wants to eat and to reject worthless material. The shoveller seldom tips up to feed by semi-immersion, but paddles quickly along, skimming the surface, with its head half submerged so that whatever is found is taken into the mouth, tasted by the sensitive tongue, and sifted out through the pectinated bristles of the bill if not wanted.
Millais (1902) relates the following incident to illustrate the activity of the shoveller in feeding:
To the observer who sees the shoveler casually by day he appears to be somewhat of a lethargic nature; but, when he cares to do so, he can move faster on the water than any of the fresh-water ducks. I have watched with pleasure the wonderful sight, calculation, and quickness of a male shoveler that I once kept in confinement on a small marshy pond at Fort George. About the laat week in April a certain water insect, whose name I do not know, would “rise” from the mud below to the sur- face of the pool only to be captured by the shoveler, who, rushing at full speed along the water, snapped up the beetle the moment it came to the surface. how it could see the insect in the act of rising I could never make out, for it was invisible to me standing on the bank above, and I could only just catch a glimpse of it as the shov- eler reached his prey and dexterously caught the beetle as it darted away again. After each capture the duck retired to the side of the pool again and there awaited the next rise—-commonly about 25 feet away. While thus occupied he seemed to be in a high state of tension; the feathers are closely drawn up and be kept his neck working backwards and forwards, in preparation, as it were, for the next spring, exactly like a cat “getting up steam” for the final rush on a victim. Sometimes he seemed to get into a frantic state of excitement, darting here and there as if he saw beetles rising in every direction. I noticed also that while devouring his prey the pupils of his eyes were unusually contracted, and the golden circlets seemed to shine more brilliantly than usual.
The food of the shoveller consists of grasses, the buds and young shoots of rushes, and other water plants, small fishes, small frogs, tadpoles, shrimps, leeches, aquatic worms, ertistaceans, small mol- lusks, particularly snails, water insects, and other insects, as well as their larvae and pupae.
Doctor Yorke (1899) adds the following to the list: “Teal moss (Limnobium), various water lilies, flags, duck-weeds, and pondweeds.”
The shoveller is an exceedingly active flyer; it rises quickly from the water, mounting straight up into the air, and darting off with a swift though somewhat erratic flight. Its flight is somewhat like that of the teals and, like them, it frequently makes sudden downward plunges. It is not shy and shows a tendency to return to the spot where it was flushed. On migrations it flies in small flocks by itself, though in the fall it is often associated with the gadwall, baldpate, or lesser scaup duck. During the mating season it is usually seen flying in pairs, with the male leading, or in trios, with a female lead- ing two males. The shoveller is easily recognized in flight; the strik- ing colors of the drake can not be mistaken; and the females and young can easily be identified by the long slender necks and con- spicuously large bills; I have seldom been in doubt when flushing a female shove]ler from her nest.
The shoveller has a small throat and a weak voice. It is usually silent, but the female sometimes indulges in a few feeble quacks and the male makes a low guttural sound like the syllables wok, wok, wok, or took, took, took; this sound has been likened by some writers to the sound made by turning a watchman’s rattle very slowly.
Mr. Robert B. Rockwell writes me:
From a good many years of observation as a duck hunter I am of the opinion that the shoveller is one of the most sociable species of wild duck. Single shovellers are very frequently seen in flocks of other species, especially teal, and the ease with which individuals and even good-sized flocks of these birds are decoyed is in itself good evidence that they are of a sociable disposition.
Throughout our Barr work the drake shovellers during the nesting season were seen in considerable numbers but were seldom seen swimming about alone, nearly always being in company with other species of ducks; nor did they seem to prefer the company of males of their own species particularly.
Fall: The shoveller is one of the earliest migrants in the fall; the first autumnal frosts, late in August or early in September, are enough to start it drifting along with the blue-winged teal; the migration is well under way by the middle of September, and a month later it is practically over.
Game: Mr.T. Gilbert Pearson (1916) says:
Shovellers feed mostly at night, especially in places where they are much pursued by gunners. I have often seen dozens of flocks come from the marshes at sunrise and fly out to the open water, far from any place where a gunner might hide. There, if the weather is fair and not too windy, they will often remain until the shades of night and the pangs of hunger again call them back to the tempting marshes. They do not gather in enormous flocks like some other ducks. I have never seen over 40 in one company, and very often they pass by in twos and threes. In hunting them the fowler usually conceals himself in a bunch of tall grass or rushes, on or near the margin of an open pond, and, after anchoring near-by 20 or 30 wooden duck dummies called decoys, sits down to wait the coming of the birds. Sometimes the ducks fly by at a distance of several hundred yards. It is then that the bunter begins to lure them by means of his artificial duck call. Quack-quack, quack-quack, comes his invitation from the rushes. The passing birds, unless too intent on their journey to heed the cry, see what they suppose to be a company of mallards and other ducks evidently profiting by a good feeding place, and, turning, come flying in to settle among the decoys. It is just at this moment, with headway checked and dangling feet, that they present an easy mark for the concealed gunner.
Audubon (1840) says: “No sportsman who is a judge will ever pass a shoveller to shoot a canvasback.” I can not quite agree with this view for the shoveller never seems to get very fat and, to my mind, its flesh is inferior to that of several others. It lives largely on ani- mal food which does not add to its flavor. Perhaps under favorable circumstances it may become fatter and more palatable.
Winter: Its main winter range is in the Southern States and Mexico, where it frequents shallow inland waters and rarely is it driven to the coast by severe weather.
Breeding range: Temperate regions in the Northern Hemisphere. In North America east more or less regularly to the west coast of Hudson Bay and the eastern boundary of Manitoba. Casually east to west central New York (Cayu~a County). South to northwestern Indiana (Lake County) and northern Illinois formerly; more recently to western Iowa (Sac County), central western Nebraska (Garden County), Kansas (probably locally), northwestern New Mexico (Lake Burford), central Arizona (Mogollon Mountains), and southern Cali- fornia (Los Angeles County); rarely and locally in Texas (Bexar County and East Bernard), and perhaps in northern Mexico. West to the central valleys of California, central Oregon (Tule Lake and Malheur Lake), northwestern Washington (Lake Washington), and central British Columbia (Fraser Valley and Cariboo District). North regularly to central Alberta (Edmonton) and the valley of the Saskatchewan River; irregularly farther north to the Bering Sea coast of Alaska (Kuskokwim River to Kotzebue Sound), the Ander- son River region, and Great Slave Lake. In the Eastern Hemisphere it breeds from southern Europe and central Asia northward nearly or quite to the Arctic Circle; and from Great Britain east to Kam- chatka and the Commander Islands.
Winter range: Milder portions of both hemispheres. In America east to the Atlantic coast of southern United States, the Greater (Cuba, Jamaica, Porto Rico) and the Lesser Antilles (St. Thomas, Barbados, Trinidad, etc.). South to northern South America (Colom- bia). West to the Pacific coast of Central America, Mexico, and United States. North to coast of southern British Columbia (Van- couver and Puget Sound region); in the interior north to central California (Fresno), Arizona, New Mexico, eastern Texas (Galveston), the lower Mississippi Valley, rarely to southern Illinois (Cairo and Mount Carmel), and the coast of Virginia (Cobb Island); has oc- curred in winter at Lanesboro, Minnesota, an(l Atlantic City, New Jersey, but is not common north of South Carolina. Winters in Hawaiian Islands. In the Eastern Hemisphere winters south to the Canary Islands, Senegambia, Somaliland, Arabia, India, Ceylon, Borneo, southern China, Formosa, the Philippine Islands, and Australia.
Spring migration: Early dates of arrival: Alberta, Edmonton, May 1; Mackenzie, Fort Chipewyan, May 7, and Fort Resolution, May 18. Average dates of arrival: Illinois, central, March 23; Iowa, central, March 23; Minnesota, Heron Lake, March 26; North Dakota, central, April 13; Manitoba,.southern, April 21. Late dates of de- parture: Lower California, Colnett, April 8; Rhode Island, Point Judith, April 29.
Fall migration: Early dates of arrival: Ontario, Beamsville, September 19; Rhode Island, Point Judith, September 24; Pennsyl- vania, Erie, September 6; Lower California, southern, October 18; Panama, Oc&ber 16. Late dates of departure: Ontario, Rockland, November 2; New York, Brancliport, November 12; Rhode Island, Point Judith, November 7
Casual records: Accidental in Bermuda (December, 1844) and Labrador (Cartwright, September, 1901). Rare on migrations as far east as Maine.
Egg dates: Minnesota and North Dakota: Forty records, May 9 to July 3; twenty records, May 31 to June 17. Manitoba and Sas- katchewan: Eighteen records, June 1 to July 5; nine records, June 5 to 11. California and Utah: Eighteen records, March 28 to July 11; nine records, May 3 to 21.