Bird Watcher's General Store

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Shovelers Have Big Bills

Dear Bird Folks,

As I sit at home tonight, flipping through my bird book, I notice a duck called “Northern Shoveler.” Boy, that sure is one freaky looking beak on that bird. Since I don’t see any other ducks with bills like that, I would like to know why shovelers have such odd bills.

– Terry, Proctorsville, VT


Welcome Terry,

Sitting at home at night flipping through a bird book, eh? Welcome to my world. For years I’ve tried to convince myself that spending every night at home reading bird books is important and it has nothing to do with me not having a life. And your note proves it. Because if someone from Proctorsville, VT can’t find something exciting to do at night, no one can. Thanks for making me feel better about myself. I owe you one.

In addition to enjoying reading bird books,Terry, we also have something else in common. Neither one of us live in an area that has very many Northern Shovelers. For the most part we really do have to read about them, because the bulk of their population is found out west, where the buffalo roam, or used to.

Over the years nature has produced several crazy looking creatures with odd things sticking out of their faces. In the world of mammals there is the elephant, the proboscis monkey and Karl Malden. Fish have the swordfish and the even freakier looking sawfish. And let’s not forget about the weird narwhal, which I believe is the offspring of a dolphin and a unicorn. To be sure, there is no shortage of odd looking bird faces either, with the pelican and the spoonbill being tops on that list. Certainly high on that list is the shoveler, a duck with an oversized, flattened bill that is extremely broad at the end, making it look like it was slammed in a car door.

The Northern Shoveler is a medium-sized duck, that has many of the colors of the ubiquitous mallard, but is more closely related to the smaller and sweeter teal. There are four species of shovelers in the world: one in southern South America, one in southern Africa, and a strikingly handsome Australasian Shoveler, that lives amazingly enough in Australia. But it is the Northern Shoveler that is the most widespread. Not only are they found here in North America, but also South America Europe, Africa and Asia, including India, I think, but you may want to look that up.

Perhaps at a distance the shoveler looks a bit like a mallard, but at close range even people with Coke bottle glasses should have no trouble identifying this unique looking duck. The books tell us the shoveler’s bill is “spatulated, ” and they may be right, but since I don’t know what spatulated means, I’ll have to take their word for it. To me the shoveler looks like a duck that has strapped a shoehorn to its face, but for some reason scientist aren’t comfortable using my shoehorn description.

Some ducks, like Buffleheads or mergansers, dive underwater in search of food, while other ducks feed from the surface. The surface feeding birds are called “dabbling ducks.” Instead of diving, they simply dip their heads into shallow water and dabble for food on or near the bottom. When they can’t reach the bottom, they do what is called “tip-up” feeding. Tip-up feeding is when most of the bird’s body is below the surface and only its tail, (or “D.A.” if you grew up in the fifties) can be seen sticking up out of the water.

Shovelers are typically far more dignified than the other dabbling ducks. Most of the time they keep their D.A. in the water where it belongs and not mooning the entire pond. Instead they slowly swim along the water with only their car-door-flattened bill just under the surface. The bird feeds by filtering out seeds and aquatic invertebrates through its odd shaped bill. Food is trapped by tiny teeth-like projections along the edge of the wide bill called “lamellae.” (Don’t worry, that last part won’t be on the test.)

Like most ducks, shovelers are game birds and are hunted by hunters, of all people. Unfortunately, many shovelers are accidentally shot when they are mistaken for the tastier, but somewhat similar looking Mallard.

On the upside, Terry, the shoveler population is healthy and may be expanding its range eastward. That is good news for people like you, me, and other Easterners, who would like to see this odd but locally rare duck a bit more often. In fact, on a recent bird walk I was thrilled to see a shoveler feeding in a marsh just down the street from my house. At least I hope is was a shoveler. I’d feel awfully silly if the bird turned out to be some other duck with a shoehorn tied to its face.