No Ordinary Duck: Meet the Northern Shoveler

This duck species is easy to identify once you spot its heavy bill. Northern Shoveler ducks are dabblers, filter-feeding on the surface.

northern shoveler duckCourtesy Michelle Greig
Female northern shoveler at McCormick Ranch Park in Scottsdale, Arizona

The past few winters, some new visitors have begun showing up on our backyard lake. A casual observer might have seen the green head and just dismissed it as another mallard, but at second glance, it was easy to see this was no ordinary duck. The large heavy bill made it extremely easy to identify our new winter residents – they’re Northern Shovelers (Anas clypeata).

Duck Species Northern ShovelersJill Staake
A widespread species, Northern Shovelers are dabbling ducks with distinctive bills.

Northern Shovelers are actually pretty common birds, and can be found across much of the U.S. and Canada at some point during the year. They winter down south, then migrate to the northwest for breeding season. They’re not restricted to North America, though; this species is also found in Europe, Africa, and Asia. They are monogamous, and like most duck species, females are drabber in color than males, though they still have that distinctive bill.

Duck Species Northern ShovelerJill Staake
Females are a drab brown with similar heavy bills.

Shovelers are dabbling ducks, which means they don’t completely submerge underwater for feeding. Because their bills are so long and heavy, they don’t even need to tip their body down into the water – they can just lower their bill and use it to filter out their food, mainly small water creatures. They have more than 100 small projections, called lamellae, along the edge of the bill to help with this process.

Duck Species Northern ShovelerJill Staake
Shovelers are filter-feeders, using their bills to find food just under the surface.

Jill Staake
Jill Staake's lifelong love of nature turned into a career during the years she spent working with native Florida butterflies, caterpillars, and other wildlife at the Museum of Science & Industry in Tampa, Florida. During this time, she helped to maintain 30+ acres of gardens and backwoods, all carefully cultivated to support the more than 20 species of butterflies displayed indoors and out. She now writes for a variety of publications and sites on topics like gardening and birding, among others.