The Northern Shoveler duck gets its common, and scientific, names from the unusual size and shape of its bill. The large, wide, flattened bill, with comb-like lamellae along the edges, is well adapted to the duck’s habit of straining shallow water for the invertebrates and vegetation on which it feeds. The winter diet consists mostly of seeds and aquatic vegetation. On the summer ranges Shovelers will take more animal foods, such as insects, crustaceans, mollusks, and even small fish. The duck is found year round in the northern Rio Grande Basin of New Mexico and winters in the southern half of the state, as well as across the southern U.S. and through Mexico and Central America. It is a common site in the managed shallow wetlands of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near San Antonio. Shovelers often submerge the head as they sweep their bills through the water and sediments for food. The species is abundant and widespread across the northern hemisphere, breeding throughout northern Europe and Asia, as well as North America, and wintering in India, Southeast Asia, along the Mediterranean, and even down into tropical Africa.

The male is distinctively colored, with a bright rusty flank, white breast and iridescent green to blue head, and a yellow eye. The wings are variously colored, with a green patch along the ends of the primaries and bluish leading edges. The female is brown with white mottling and a green or bluish patch on the wings. Her eyes are light brown.

In the breeding season Northern shovelers migrate to the northern Great Plains and up into the prairies of Canada and into Alaska, where they nest on prairies, marshes, and tundra, with open water nearby. Males and females bond during winter and migrate together to nesting grounds in the spring. Males will court a female by displaying near her and attempting to lead her away while swimming or flying. She indicates her chosen mate by following him. About a dozen eggs are laid in a shallow depression of grasses. The chicks are precocial and the female leads them to water within a few hours after hatching. They are able to fly after about two months.

The Audubon Society doesn’t predict a large effect of continued climatic warming on the breeding range of Shovelers, though some habitat losses are expected in the U.S. plains and the eastern part of its range in Canada.

Photos taken using Nikon P900 at the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge by James Taulman.