Northern Shoveler

25th June 2010

Distribution: This species have a very broad geographic ranges estimated at around 10,000,000 km2.


It is widely distributed north of the Equator except for the high arctic. The Northern Shoveler breeds throughout Eurasia, western North America and the Great Lakes region of the eastern United States. In winter various populations migrate south to specific locations, scattered throughout the Mediterranean countries, north-east Africa (as far south as Kenya and tropical Africa), India, southeastern Asia, southern China and Japan to Colombia, Mexico and the southern United States.

Status: The Northern Shoveler's global population is estimated to be 5,000,000 to 6,400,000 individuals (in 2002). Breeding populations appear to be relatively stable though global population trends have not been properly quantified. The species is not believed to approach the thresholds for the population decline criterion of the IUCN Red List (i.e. declining more than 30% in ten years or three generations). For these reasons, the species is evaluated as Least Concern.

Due to its highly specialized bill and consequent habitat requirements, the Northern Shoveler appears to be less affected by drought and food scarcity than other dabblers. This may explain how this species has maintained long-term stable populations.

Though this species is not threatened and even locally common, it is listed on Appendix III of CITES for Ghana. The population in North America appears to be increasing, maybe because the Northen Shoveler is protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act.

Habitat: During the breeding season, the Northen Shoveler inhabits permanent shallow freshwater wetlands from sea level up to 2,900 m in the Ethiopian highlands. Its preferred sites are those surrounded by dense stands of reeds or other emergent vegetation whilst being free of overhanging trees or fringing forest.


This duck is especially found in water bodies rich in aquatic vegetation and in plankton. Suitable habitats include well-vegetated lakes, ponds and marshes with muddy shores and substrates in open country - such as grasslands or even tundra- or lowland woodlands and clearings for nesting, as well as oxbow lakes, channels and swamps, notably in the former U.S.S.R.. It also frequents artificial waters bordered by lush grassland such as sewage farms, rice-fields and fish ponds.


During winter, the Northern Shoveler will use virtually any wetland as long as it has muddy edges. It can then be found on coastal brackish lagoons, tidal mudflats, estuaries, coastal shorelines, fresh and brackish estuarine marshes, swamps, inland seas and brackish or saline inland waters, and flooded areas in savanna, grassland or forest. The Northern Shoveler will even forage in sewage ponds and stagnant or polluted waters avoided by other species of ducks. It may occasionally briefly occur on marine waters during migration, yet it generally avoids very saline habitats.

General habits: Northern Shovelers are usually found in pairs or in small parties, but they tend to congregate when feeding and roosting, and flocks of 20, 30 or even several hundreds of individuals occur in favoured areas in Africa. They may also travel in large numbers during migration and large concentrations then form, especially at stop-over sites.

This species is highly migratory, flying south to overwinter in tropical and subtropical regions, although it may be present all year round in parts of Europe. The Northern Shoveler migrates in flocks in a prolonged migration period in both the spring and the fall.


It arrives on the breeding grounds from March (with a migration peak around the end of April) where it breeds in solitary pairs or loose groups in the northern spring (chiefly from mid-April to June). Males undergo a post-breeding moult migration from early-May to early-June (females moulting one month later) during which they are flightless for 3-4 weeks.


The autumn migration begins in August, peaks in September, and continues into November. The species is then likely to travel on a broad front, with the western European populations spreading across Arabia and into Africa.


In flight the Northern Shovelers stay in tight bunches, weaving to and fro like shorebirds. The Northern Shoveler is territorial during the early breeding season; it is, indeed, the most territorial of all North American dabblers. Males are then aggressive, using wing noises to advertise their presence on a territory and chase intruders. They are, otherwise, quiet birds that tolerate human presence and can be relatively tame.

Feeding habits: The Northern Shoveler has a varied diet consisting mostly of small aquatic invertebrates such as adult and larval insects (e.g. caddisfly larvae, damselfly and dragonfly nymphs, adult beetles, bugs and flies), molluscs and planktonic crustaceans. It also feeds on the seeds of emergent and aquatic plants (e.g. bulrushes and waterweeds), aquatic or marine worms, amphibian spawn, tadpoles, spiders, fish and parts of aquatic plants (e.g. duckweeds). The vegetarian part of its diet is especially important in winter.

The shovelers feed during the day. They are drawn to feeding sites by other birds feeding in an area. Indeed, shovelers have learned to take advantage of the food particles churned to the surface by the other birds swimming or wading nearby. When they are isolated, they sometimes swim in a tight circle to create a whirlpool to cause food to come to the surface. Shovelers are also known to upend or dabble, usually for lengthier periods than other surface feeders, and also dive using their wings to swim underwater in shallow marshes.

But a Northern Shoveler mainly feeds by drawing water and mud into its bill and then pumping it out through the sides with its tongue, filtering out minute food particles with some 110 comb-like fine projections - called lamellae- that line the edge of the elongated, spoon-shaped bill. It swims with its head outstretched, bill skimming the water's surface, sifting out food.

Breeding habits: Northern Shoveler pairs are monogamous and remain together through the incubation period, unlike most other species of dabbling ducks. Breeding usually takes place from April until June with the pair formation beginning in the winter and continuing during the spring migration.

Nest: Usually this species nests close to water but if grass cover is unavailable in the wetland site it may also nest far away from water under bushes, in hayfields or in meadows. Although it is not a colonial species, several pairs may nest in close proximity. It is the female which chooses the nesting site.


The female is also the one responsible for building the nest, generally on dry ground. The latter is a scrape or a shallow depression in tall grass, among hummocks, in the open or (rarely) bulrush marshes. The basic structure itself is made of grass and weeds and lined with down. To make a neat cup, she twists her body on the ground.

Eggs: The Northern Shoveler female is also the sole one in charge of incubating her 9 to 12 eggs for 22 to 28 days, beginning immediately after the last egg has been laid. The eggs are olive coloured and measure 52x37mm. The male loses interest soon after incubation starts.

When flushed off the nest, a female Northern Shoveler often defecates on her eggs, apparently to deter predators.

Young: The ducklings are born precocial and start following the female almost immediately. The mother leads her chicks, aged hardly a few hours, to the water, where they can straight away start to swim and forage. Feeding practices and locations are learned during this time. The young typically stay close to the cover of emergent vegetation, and the female tends them until they fledge at 40 to 66 days of age. Northen Shovelers become sexually mature at 1 year.

The ducklings hatch with a typical duckbill that enlarges as the duckling matures. Juvenile birds look similar to females or non breeding males.

Call: Male of this species gives a nasal bray in fall courtship. Female makes various quacks. Upon taking flight, the Northen Shoveler also makes a rattling noise, unique among dabbling ducks.

Description: The Northern Shoveler is perhaps the most outwardly distinctive of the dabbling ducks.

Males weigh 450 to 1000g, measure 43 to 56 cm, and their wingspans are usually 227 to 251mm. Females are slightly lighter, weighing less than 800g.

The very large, spatulate bill is the most distinguishing feature of the aptly named Northern Shoveler. The uniquely shaped bill, 6,5cm long, is twice as wide at the tip than it is at the base and gave rise to Northern Shovelers also being called "spoonbills".  The male in breeding plumage has bright wings, a bright iridescent-green head with a yellow eye, bold white breast, and chestnut sides. Females, juveniles, and males in eclipse plumage (from May through August) are mainly a pattern of buffs and browns. Both sexes have pale blue inner forewings and orange-yellow legs and feet.

Did you know: Northern Shovelers are a game bird. Hunters often shoot them due to their resemblance to mallards. They are often referred to as "neighbour's mallards", because some hunters give them to their neighbours and keep the more tasty mallards for themselves.

Unfortunately, this species is hunted for sport in North America, Denmark and the Po delta, Italy, and is hunted commercially and recreationally in Iran. The eggs of this species used to be (and possibly still are) harvested in Iceland.

The Northern Shoveler is threatened by habitat loss in Britain and Ireland, is occasionally killed by collisions with power transmission lines, and suffers from nest predation by American mink Neovison vison. It is susceptible to avian influenza, and avian botulism so may be threatened by future outbreaks of these diseases. The species may suffer from reproductive impairment as a result of selenium (Se) accumulation in liver tissues (selenium contained in sub-surface agricultural drain-water used for wetland management in California led to bioaccumulation of the element in the food chain). The species suffers mortality as a result of lead shot ingestion (Camargue, France and Spain).

Northern Shovelers are very popular with aviculturists, are rather easy to propagate, and can be found in almost any waterfowl collection.

The Northern Shoveler is also called: Shoveler, European shoveler, Common shoveler [English]; Löffelente [German]; Slobeend [Dutch]; Skedand [Swedish]; Canard souchet, Soucher ordinaire [French]; Cuchara Común, Pato chucharrón norteño [Spanish]; Mestolone [Italian]

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