Northern Shoveler

Hey guys, welcome back! Today we have a funny-looking dabbling duck, the Northern Shoveler. The Shoveler is common along the U.S. Atlantic Coast and southern part of the country in winter, and spends its summers in Canada and the upper plains states. They’re also found on 3 other continents; Europe, Asia, and Africa (or the one supercontinent Afroeurasia, if you prefer.)

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Female Northern Shoveler, Central Park, NY

When it comes to birding, many beginners look for one thing to ID a bird, but it’s often many things. Take the Northern Shoveler. When I worked in Central Park, I conducted beginning birding walks often. Occasionally, I’d have someone see some Northern Shovelers our on the lake and they’d, quite confidently, proclaim that they were mallards. Now, you can’t fault them. They knew that Mallards had green heads, the Northern Shoveler has a green head, so it must be a Mallard! Now, I would never be all “haha you idiot! you’re wrong!” Doing that isn’t nice, or professional. It also doesn’t encourage their birding skills. Instead, I’d have them look at the rest of the bird, and compare it with a Mallard (there was almost always one nearby.) Doing that, teaches a beginning birder that one field mark helps, but you need to look at other things. Like shape, bill size and color, etc.

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Male Northern Shoveler, St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis, MO

The Northern Shoveler is smaller than a Mallard, has a shorter neck, a bright white breast, and black, extremely large, spoon-shaped bill. Hence the name. The female is the typical female duck mottled brown, with an equally large, orange bill. Northern Shovelers feed in a unique way. You’ll often see large groups of them, all spinning in a circle while feeding. This creates a small whirlpool in the lake, stirring up tiny crustaceans and other food for the Shovelers to gobble up! Living in New York for 15 years, where Shovelers spend their winters, I got used to seeing them all the time, but here in St. Louis, I’m now outside the Shoveler’s range (though they do stop here during migration), and I miss seeing these funny little guys swirling around in big groups. I’m glad I got to witness it when I did. Today, the only place I’ve been able to see Shovelers has been at the St. Louis Zoo’s Cypress Swamp.

Northern Shovelers were some of the first winter ducks to arrive in Central Park, sometimes arriving on the scene as early as August! All the other winter ducks never started showing up until October of even November! They typically showed up in eclipse plumage, and molt after reaching their wintering grounds. I think that’ll about wrap it up for today. Next time, we’ll talk about another small duck, the Green-winged Teal! See you all then!

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