As a medium-sized duck, the Northern Shoveler seems just too small for its preposterously large, flat, broad-tipped bill. A paint pallet on webbed feet, the male’s breeding plumage (September through May) borders on gaudy, with his bright white chest, rusty sides, and green head. Note especially the gleaming white chest. Only one other non-diving (also called “dabbling”) duck—the Northern Pintail—has a white chest, making IDing the shoveler even easier. (Be aware that from June to December, this breeding plumage darkens a bit.) The drab brown female and immature shovelerboth look like a pale female mallard with a giant orange bill. But really, that bill is all you need to see, no matter the plumage stage, sex, or age of the bird.
Basically an aquatic vacuum cleaner, the Northern Shoveler busily forages with its neck extendedand bill and often much of its head submerged for extended periods. It suniquely shaped bill has more than 100 comb-like projections called “lamellae” along the edges. A shoveler takes water into its bill and the lamellae act like a colander as the water flows out, pulling out seeds and small nektonic (“swimming”) invertebrates such as insects and their larvae, mollusks, and crustaceans from the water.Sometimes large groups of shovelers swim in circles to stir up food.
Northern Shovelers winter in San Diego County’s coastal wetlands and on its inland lakes. Here, they prefer large, shallow, fresh- and saltwater lakes, wetlands, and sewage treatment settling ponds. (Eeewww!)Their special diet, in turn, explains their preference for shallow, muddy, even stagnant wetlands with plenty of bottom ooze, which provides a bounty of free-swimming invertebrates.
Northern Shovelers begin appearing in San Diego County in mid-August, and their numbers increase through December. Spring departure for more northern breeding grounds begins in March. From May to July shovelers become scarce in San Diego County, although here in North County, a smattering of summering birds may appear at Whelan Lake or Buena Vista Lagoon.
The Northern Shoveler’s current scientific name is Spatula clypeata. The name genus Spatula is the Latin for a “spoon” or “spatula.” The species name derives from Latin clypeata, “shield-bearing” (from clypeus, “shield”). Some taxonomist apparently thought its bill looked like a shield. (Personally, I don’t see it.) In the common name, “Northern” denotes the species’ natural range of the northern U.S. “Shoveler” is yet another reference to the shape of the bill and how the bird uses it when feeding. Originally, the Northern Shoveler was classified in the Anas genus along with many other dabbling ducks. In 2009, though, genetic studies found that the genus Anas containedfour distinct genera: Spatula (Northern Shoveler, Cinnamon and Blue-winged teal), Mareca (Gadwall, American Wigeon, and Falcated Duck), Sibirionetta (Baikal Teal), and Anas (Mallards, American Black and Mottled ducks, Northern and White-cheeked pintails, and Green-winged Teal).
That wacky bill has given rise to a number of folk names for the Northern Shoveler—Spoony and Spoonbill are obvious choices (although the U.S. actually has the legitimate Roseate Spoonbill). A special feature of the bill can be seen if you look closely—a “grin patch” (visible on the photo here).A straight lower bill and an arched upper bill create a gap near the head that looks, if you have a vivid imagination, as if the bird were grinning. (It’s not.) That feature underlies other nicknames: Hollywood (“Smile for the camera!”), Smiling Mallard, and Grinner. Whatever you call it, though, you should have little trouble identifying a Northern Shoveler.