The Great Outdoors


“We are fascinated by shovelers,” a reader wrote recently, “Maybe you could find an upcoming article regarding these unique ducks.”

I like the suggestion. Shovelers are unique in several ways. They’re shallow water ducks, puddle ducks, like mallards and black ducks, pintails, gadwall and wigeon, blue- and green-winged teal. They look like those ducks, particularly mallards. Drake shovelers have green heads, like mallards, and hens are mottled brown, like female mallards. Shallow water ducks are broad and flat but the shoveler’s bill is broader than any other duck. It’s described as spatulate. It’s what the shoveler is named for, its broad, flat, shovel-like bill.

Shovelers feed differently than mallards and other puddle ducks. Mallards and other puddle ducks feed by sticking their heads down, their tails up, paddling with their feet to hold this position while they scavenge for food on the bottom of a pond or marsh. Shovelers feed by swimming, holding their heads low, at the surface of the water, holding their bills open, scooping in water and letting it drain out through little projections around the edges of the bill, projections called lamellae. Anything in the water, plant or animal, is caught in the mouth, then swallowed. Shovelers are practically omnivorous. According to Arthur Cleveland Bent, in Life Histories of North American Birds, shovelers eat “grasses, buds and young shoots of rushes, tadpoles, shrimps, leeches, aquatic worms, crustaceans, small mollusks, particularly snails, water insects, and other insects, as well as their larvae and pupae.”

Shovelers nest in the northern part of North America, from northern Arizona through Alaska and from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific. They are common west of the Mississippi River, uncommon, even rare during nesting season east of Michigan.

Shovelers are different also in time of migration. They migrate north late in spring, south in late summer or early fall. In Indiana I have seen mallards and ring-necked ducks, buffleheads and goldeneyes in winter where current or a spring keeps the water of a pond or river open. I’ve never seen a shoveler in Indiana in winter. They’re gone from Indiana before the end of summer, before the leaves begin to change color and they don’t return until late April at the earliest, more often May.

Shovelers, like other ducks, choose their mates while on their wintering grounds. When they fly north they are paired. The lady who suggested I write about shovelers wrote that she was fascinated with “how they go around in circles in pairs.” She described watching a group of eight to ten, four or five pairs, together in one circle.

Shovelers make their nests on mounds of vegetation in marshes or other shallow water or on the ground in grassy fields. Mallards and many other ducks nest this way also. But a pair of shovelers will sometimes make their nest a considerable distance from water. I’ve never found such a nest. I’ve never found a shoveler’s nest. But I’ve read of shoveler’s nests being found a hundred feet, even more, from the nearest pond or lake.

The hen shoveler makes the nest, lays and incubates the eggs and cares for the ducklings, joining her mate to feed at intervals. While the hen cares for the nest, her mate swims round and round on the nearest pond or lake, seining food from the water surface, resting, sleeping at night. Soon after the eggs hatch shoveler ducklings are able to walk and the hen leads them to water. There, hens and ducklings, join the males.

One other curiosity about the shoveler, the spelling of the name. In Life Histories of North American Birds, Bent spelled the name with one “l” some places, with two in other places. Webster’s Dictionary lists both spellings.

Neil A. Case

Neil A. Case

I have always liked the outdoors and birds and am a conservationist and an environmentalist. I don't write specifically about conservation but mix my opinion in with stories about a bird, a mammal, a plant or other outdoor subject. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer