The northern shoveler has a distinctive long, wide, flat, spoon-shaped bill. Adult male, in breeding plumage, has a green head with yellow eyes, black back, white breast, and chestnut sides. The bill is black. Males in eclipse (post-breeding) plumage are dull brown but retain the yellow eyes. The back is blackish with tan-edged feathers; the sides are lighter brown; sometimes there’s an indistinct white crescent on the face, a bit like the blue-winged teal’s. Female is a fairly even grayish brown overall; the bill is grayish edged with orange; the eyes are brown. In flight both sexes show a blue forewing patch in front of a green speculum, separated by white (like the pattern on a blue-winged teal). Females quack; males make a nasal, nonmusical tchuk chuk or paaay.
Similar species: Northern shovelers are easily distinguished from all our other ducks by their long, heavy-looking bills and the breeding male’s unique color pattern.
Length: 19 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).
Habitat and Conservation
Look for shovelers in marshes, ponds, and lakes with emergent vegetation, as they forage in shallow water. Flooded cropland also provides foraging habitat. Shovelers, like other dabblers, can take flight by jumping directly from the water into the air. Their wings are large in relation to their body weight, giving them the ability to lift their own weight easily, right from the surface of the water.
Northern shovelers generally forage in shallow water, sifting mud through their bills. A fringe of bristles along the bill’s edge helps them strain out aquatic vegetation and invertebrates, including clams, leeches, snails, and worms. Like other dabblers, they forage near the surface and rarely dive completely under the water.
Common migrant. Rarely observed during the summer, but occasionally a pair or two nest at Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge and other areas with large emergent marshes. Locally rare in winter, occurring regularly in small flocks.
Like many other migratory waterfowl, northern shovelers typically fly through Missouri in spring and fall as they move between their northern breeding grounds and their overwintering territory. Their nests are built on the ground in thick but short vegetation, usually near water. As with other ducks, the young hatch covered with down and are able to walk around soon after hatching.
As with other migratory waterfowl, shoveler numbers are tracked and game laws structured to keep populations healthy. This duck has several other common names, such as “spoonbill” and “mud-sucker.”
Migratory waterfowl, like other migrating animals, play important ecological roles in both their breeding and overwintering territories. They also influence the ecology of every region they travel through in spring and fall.