Thursday, December 17, 2015

Northern Shoveler

A Northern Shoveler drake.

     The Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata) is a very distinctive, medium sized (19" and about a pound and a half) duck. Although the drakes (males) are very colorful, it's their spatulate-shaped beak which stands out the most. It gives the Northern Shoveler (or Shoveller in British English) a variety of its common names used by hunters or regionally: Spoonbill, Shovelbill, Shovelnose, Broadbill, Spoonie, Bootlips, Smilin' Mallard, Broad-faced Mallard, and Neighbor's Mallard (the last three due to the green-headed resemblance to the common mallard). Some even believe it (along with the three other Shoveler species worldwide) deserve their own genus, Spatula, based on the beak shape. It's specific name clypeata also means "shield" due to the shape of the beak.
     The spoon-shaped beak is specialized to help the duck strain out food. It is not only very broad, but has about 110 projections, comb-like "teeth" called lamellae that they use to strain their food. Spoonbills use these to filter out all sorts of food, but in particular small macro-invertebrates and plankton. Of all our dabbling ducks, they ingest the most animal matter. About a third of their diet consists of small aquatic organisms.
     Dabblers, or puddle ducks, are what most people envision when they think of a duck. They take off directly from the water, do not regularly dive underwater for food, and eat mostly plant material. Diving ducks on the other hand dive under water to catch their food, which consists of much more animal matter, and need to run across the water's surface before they can fly. Shovelers however eat a larger proportion of animal material than other puddle ducks. They rarely, they can dive, and do not generally tip bottom-up like other dabblers to reach their food.
     Spoonies tend to just dabble and skim their big bills along the surface, catching whatever food they can. They sometimes seem to cooperate in getting their food, occasionally pin-wheeling among each other and catching what they kick-up for each other. At other times they just line up and cover a wide area. They may also follow other water birds, filtering what ever they churn up. Shovelers prefer freshwater in the warmer months, but will utilize brackish bays and estuaries while wintering. They are also not as picky about where they feed as far as water quality, sometimes utilizing stagnant or polluted pools that other waterfowl avoid. Here's a short video showing a Northern Shoveler drake dabbling:

     Because a higher proportion of their food is animal matter, these ducks are not considered good eating like other ducks who eat more plant material. It is believed that such a diet taints the flavor of the duck. Their dark meat is not favored by hunters, though they can be decoyed easily, and so they are not heavily hunted.
     Spoonbills breed well up North in late spring, but they pair up while wintering in the South. They nest in Canada, the Great Lakes region, and in Northern pothole country. The drake (male) stays paired with the hen much longer than most other ducks, though he (like all other ducks) does not assist in raising the young. He will accompany her well into the incubation period, long after other male ducks have abandoned their own mates.

A pair of Spoonbills, hen to the right.

     Shovelers will nest farther from water than most other ducks, over 100 yards away at times, but they prefer to nest closer when they can. The hen lays 6-14 pale greenish eggs in a shallow depression on the ground, often near the place she nested the year before. If she is flushed off the nest, she will sometimes defecate on the eggs before leaving, perhaps in an attempt to protect them. If the nest is destroyed, she will often re-nest like many other ducks also do, but the second nest will have fewer eggs. After 24 or so days of incubation, the precocial young are born. In under two months, they are fledged and can fly.
     Northern Shovelers are strong fliers. Though they may appear a bit ungainly due to the over-sized bills, they are also very agile. Their tight-knit, small flocks (5-10 birds is the norm) fly erratically, swerving, diving and circling. During migration, they regularly end up in Central America, with some having been found in Trinidad and as far South as Colombia. Some fly from Alaska to Hawaii as part of their normal migration as well.
     Though not common locally, Northern Shovelers are very common and widespread ducks. They are more usual in the West and Central parts of the USA. They also range into Eurasia. Due to their strong flying ability, Spoonies have been found on every continent except Antarctica. The European ones regularly stray into Africa and some vagrant Asian ones have even ended up in Australia.
     Northern Shoveler populations have been very healthy since the 1960's. In fact, they are considered the second most common ducks in North America. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated their population at 4.6 million strong in 2009. Regardless, since they're not as common locally and stand out due to their appearance, I enjoy whenever I find them. Here's a short video from the Capital Naturalist YouTube Channel to wrap up: