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MN Outdoors:  Northern shovelers are ducks like no other

Submitted by Blane Klemek
Crookston Times

    As we all know, Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes. In actuality there are far more than 10,000 lakes. Throw in wetlands, rivers, and streams, Minnesota has more lakeshore and riparian miles than Hawaii, California, and Florida combined.

    So for a state as waterlogged as Minnesota is, it’s no small wonder that waterfowl and wetland dependent species of birds abound. Ducks, geese, grebes, loons, cormorants, pelicans, gulls and terns, herons and egrets, bitterns, coots, rails, shorebirds galore, and umpteen species of passerines such as red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds, marsh and sedge wrens, and many more, nest near and above waterbodies everywhere in our great state.

    One of the most interesting species of duck that breeds and nests in Minnesota is also arguably the most unique and odd looking duck anywhere. The springtime breeding plumage of the drake is beautiful, their vocalizations are curious sounding, and they possess a bill like no other duck. Indeed, the shape of the 2.5-inch long bill of this duck is how the species got its name and nickname—the northern shoveler, aka “spoonbill”.

    Save for their exceptionally long, wide, and highly specialized and spatulate bill, too, female northern shovelers resemble hen teal and mallards. Grouped with other dabbling/puddle ducks of the genus “Anas”, northern shovelers are medium sized ducks about 14” long with 31-inch wingspans. To compare, mallards are about two inches longer with three-foot wingspans.

    Drakes are boldly and brilliantly plumaged in a striking color combination that includes white, green, blue, and rust. During my three summers of conducting wildlife research work on prairie wetlands and uplands in North Dakota, my favorite duck to observe for sheer beauty was the drake northern shoveler adorned in his breeding best.

Hens and immature shovelers are mottled brown with powder blue coloration on their wings. Female shovelers’ bills are no less large than drakes, however, unlike drake shoveler bills, hens’ bills are orange colored whereas male bills are dark black. Like all ground nesting female ducks, the mottled brown cryptic coloration is perfect camouflage for when incubating a nest full of eggs. Imagine how vulnerable a female duck would be to predation if she shared the colors that her mate has.

    I’ve known waterfowl hunters to call northern shovelers by a host of names, “spoonies” being one, and some names not nearly so endearing, as it’s also a wide-held opinion that shovelers are not fine table fare. For this latter reason, to be known to willingly take a shoveler as part of a daily bag limit is viewed unfavorably by some purist waterfowlers.   

    Northern shovelers are also known as the “carnivore” of duck species. Not that this species of duck is predator per se, but a significant component of the shoveler’s diet are small crustaceans and other invertebrates that it sifts through tiny comb-like structures located along the edges of its bill called lamellae. As the bird sifts through substrate and water in search for food, tiny crustaceans and other invertebrates, as well as plant seeds, are consumed in the process.

    Foraging shovelers are known to feed together in large groups as they swim in circles to stir up invertebrates in the water column. You’ll observe shovelers performing these feeding activities with their bills submerged as they swing them from side-to-side in the filtering process. Social ducks, it’s not uncommon to see shovelers feeding near and with other dabbling ducks, too.

    Courting male northern shovelers are animated and noisy when wooing prospective mates. The strange “took-took” calls are distinctive sounding and easily identified as solely shoveler. During my graduate school wetland research on bird diversity, the sounds and antics of northern shovelers were spectacles that I was always delighted in watching and listening to. It was constant commotion at the height of the breeding season.

    Thankfully, northern shovelers are an abundant species of duck across its range in North America. With an estimated global breeding population of around 4.5 million, the species is not on the “Partners in Flight Watch List” and is considered a species of low conservation concern.

    Northern shovelers, a species of duck like no other, has a bill like no other, too. A special duck in all manners sight and sound, “spoonies” are fascinating ducks to say the least as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.