Be Your Own Birder

Discover the Northern Shoveler

Ducks have a lot of distinctive features, and one of the most distinctive bills belongs to the northern shoveler. But while the broad, spatulate bill of this dabbling duck is instantly recognizable, there’s a lot more to learn about the northern shoveler!

Northern Shoveler – Male – Photo by Becky Matsubara

Northern Shoveler Fun Facts

  • The northern shoveler is one of only four “shoveler” duck species in the world. The others are the red shoveler, the cape shoveler, and the Australian shoveler.
  • The northern shoveler has the most widespread range of all shoveler ducks. While the other shovelers have relatively limited ranges, the northern shoveler’s native range includes five continents, and it has been introduced to a sixth! The only continent where you won’t see northern shovelers is Antarctica.
  • With their broad bills, these ducks are experts at filtering through water to eat seeds, crustaceans, aquatic plants, insects, invertebrates, and sometimes even small fish.
  • The northern shoveler’s bill is lined with roughly 110 lamellae, comb-like projections that act like a filter or colander to screen out food as the bird dabbles through the water.
  • These ducks often work together to feed in a “pinwheel” pattern, where several ducks swim in a tight circle with their bills nearly touching in the center. This stirs up food at the edge and pushes it toward the center of the pattern, and all the participating ducks can feed more easily.
  • While true to its name this bird tends to stay in northern areas, vagrant northern shovelers have been recorded in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand on rare occasions.
  • Northern shovelers are one of the most agile ducks in the air, tightly twisting and turning in flight – which gives birders a great view of their speculum patch.
  • These are monogamous ducks, and keep strong pair bonds much longer than most other ducks. A mated pair will stay together until migration, well after their eggs have hatched and the juvenile birds have gained independence.
  • The average lifespan of a wild northern shoveler is 17-19 years, though in areas where hunting seasons are more popular, these ducks can be managed as game birds.
Northern Shoveler – Female – Photo by Dan Pancamo

Adding the Northern Shoveler to Your Life List

Finding these ducks is relatively easy within their broad range, if you visit the proper habitat. Shallow lakes and slow rivers with muddy bottoms, flooded fields, wetlands, coastal marshes, estuaries, sewage lagoons, and water treatment facilities are all ideal habitat for finding northern shovelers. They may feed at any time of day, and the bold color patterns and distinctive bill make them easy to identify, even from a distance or with poor views. Look for these birds sweeping their bills across the water in a “nibbling” motion as they feed, as they only rarely “tip up” to stretch beneath the surface. In winter, they are commonly seen in mixed flocks with other dabbling ducks, such as teal and mallards.

Learn More About Northern Shovelers

To learn even more about these distinctive ducks, check out…

Northern Shoveler Pair – Photo by June Durbian/USFWS

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