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The Northern Shoveler { Birds of Europe}

Updated on August 9, 2015

Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata



The Shoveler duck belongs to the Order of birds known as the Anseriformes and the family Anatidae within that order. They are placed in the genus Anas,Latin for duck and allocated the species name of clypeatus indicating Shield bearing from the Latin clypeatus a shield.

In the UK they are placed on the Amber list of conservation concern because it is a species of European concern and because of important non-breeding populations. There are an estimated 700 pairs {summer} and in winter 18,000 individuals {2008-2009}. In Ireland they are Red listed due to recent moderate declines in Europe. {source BTO}.2014.

In Europe they are of 3 concern,most in Europe declining. The current European population is estimated to be between 30,000-and 50,000 pairs. the populations vary from country to country here are a few selected examples. In Austria 160-300 Breeding pairs {BP}. Belgium 800-1,100 BP. Croatia 50-100 BP. France 700-1,300 BP. Finland 10,000-12,000 BP. Germany 2,100-3,200 BP. Russia 140,000-160,000 BP. Sweden 1,000-1,500 BP. Ukraine 1,900-3,100 BP. { Source Birdlife } 2014.

They inhabit shallow lakes, marsh,reed beds and wet meadows.The Gaelic name for the bird is Lach-ghuib-leathainn, the Welsh Hwyaden Lylandbig, the irish Spadalach and the Croatian name is Patka Zlicarka.

Cape Shoveler

Taken in South Africa.
Taken in South Africa. | Source

Australian Shoveler A.rhynchotis

Originally posted to Flickr, uploaded to Commons by Kahuroa
Originally posted to Flickr, uploaded to Commons by Kahuroa | Source

What are shovelers ?

Shovelers are dabbling ducks that are usually placed in the genus Anas. However, it differs from species such as the Mallard and along with some other species of Shovelers and their relatives form a 'blue-winged' group that are sometimes { now and in the past} placed in a separate genus of Spatula.

Apart from our species under review, there is the Cape Shoveler, Anas smithii,a resident of South Africa,but uncommon further north. The Red Shoveler, Anas platalea of South America,and the Australian Shoveler, Anas rhynchotis,which lives in heavily vegetated swamps,in south eastern Australia,Tasmania and New Zealand.

In North America, the Northern Shoveler is an abundant species,coming only second behind the Mallard and Blue-winged teals. The populations have been healthy since the 1960's and have soared in recent years to more than four million birds {2011}, which is thought to be because of favourable breeding, migration and wintering habitat conditions.

Here we review the lifestyle and habits of the Northern Shoveler,along with historical notes and observations. As always we commence with a description of the subject under review.

Northern Shoveler and habitat

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley.
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley. | Source

Description of the Northern Shoveler.

Description at a glance- Shovelers are surface feeding ducks with huge spatulate bills. Males have dark green heads,with white breasts and chestnut flanks. Females are mottled brown. in flight the birds show patches of light blue and green on the wings.

In more detail----Male-The plumage is handsome and the markings well defined and the length of this dick is about twenty inches. The beak is lead coloured,the irides yellow. The whole of the head and upper part of the neck is green,the lower part of the neck and scapulars,and some of the tertials are white. The middle of the back is brown, the feathers having lighter coloured margins.

The point of the wing,lesser wing coverts and outer web of some of the tertials pale blue. The greater wing coverts are white.primaries and secondaries dark brown,almost black,but the speculum is green. The rump,upper tail coverts and tail feathers almost black. The breast and the whole of the body is a rich chestnut brown. The thigh feathers freckled with dark brown, on a ground colour of lighter pale brown. The vent is white. The under tail coverts black.

The legs,toes and membranes a reddish -orange the nails are black. During the summer the male changes the green colour of the head and neck to brown spotted with very dark brown. The breast and belly are ferruginous spotted with with black.

In the female the head and neck are mottled with two shades of brown. The feathers on the upper surface of the body darker brown in the centre,with light brown edges and tips,the under surface of the body is pale brown.

Courtesy of Benjamin Long Standard You Tube License.

General and historical information

History reveals that this species bred in England in several counties,the chief of which were Norfolk,Cambridge and Lincolnshire{ about 30 pairs altogether in three locations},also Nottinghamshire and sparingly in Cumbria,near Solway,Yorkshire and Northumberland.

In Scotland it bred in several localities,notably in one ,Loch Spynie,in Moray, a spot rendered historical in the writings of Charles St.John. Mr J A.Harvie-Brown, reveals that it was a rpaidly increasing nesting species, in the 1800's in many parts of Scotland. In 1891,he records a pair nested on a small loch,Sanday in Orkney about 30 young ones being seen together in the course of a year.

Between the years of 1833-34 to1867-68 {thirty five years} 285 Shovelers were recorded in the decoy book at Ashby -on- Trent,north Lincolnshire," as taken in the pipes". The largest number in any one year was 34 in 1868-69, Tacey,the decoy man stated-" the ducks had a curious habit of swimming round and round each other in circles,with the head and neck depressed to the surface of the water, this they continued for hours."

Professor newton also made notes of this habit. he thought that it was no amatory action, but the real and only object,he considered is that the procuring food, as a pair,when feeding.-" They get opposite to each other and swim around in a a circle,holding their heads towards the centre and their bills plunged into the water perpendicularly and up to the base,when the mandibles are employed in 'bibbling' {a Norfolk term}. They will then swim in this way for ten minutes together,always preserving their relative position on the circumference of the circle they are describing, then after a pause, and perhaps a slight removal of a yard or two,they will resume their occupation"

In current times although they are widespread in the UK during the winter,they can be seen in large numbers at places such as the RSPB's Ouse Washes nature reserve,Rutland water { English Midlands} and in Essex. in winter breeding birds move south and are replaced by an influx of Continental birds from further north. The UK is home to more than 20% of the north west European population.. Although the bird is a highly migratory species it is present all year round in the UK and many parts of Europe.The migration season usually commences between September and October in western Europe.

Northern Shoveler pair

Taken in Quebec Canada
Taken in Quebec Canada | Source

Habitat and diet

Shovelers seem to prefer, as a rule, small shady pools to open waters and the shallow end of lakes,sheltered by dense reed beds and overgrown by water loving plants and sedges. When they are flushed they make a 'clunking' call and the female a mallard-like quack. Butler, comments " I have never heard them either in the wild or tame,utter any sound or note"

The food of this species is very varied and studies of their stomach contents have been reviewed in days gone by. For example one young male was 'crammed full of small seeds,like trefoil,and some angular stones', this was in the autumn. They will eat the roots and leaves of water plants,various small fish and aquatic insects,small frogs,tadpoles,crustaceans, water snails,land snails and worms.

The broad, spoon bill is admirably adapted for sifting fine mud and sand and retaining any foreign substances. The bill of the bird is peculiar in structure it is as long as the rest of its head,and from the centre to the tip it is flattened out,and rounded into a shape not dissimilar to the end of a shovel,from which it takes its common name.

Pair sifting the water for food

Sifting the water with their shovel like beaks.
Sifting the water with their shovel like beaks. | Source

The Shoveler and man

On the wing it moves rapidly and usually at no great height and may easily be distinguished by their square ended and heavy looking bill,as compared with the size of the head. The feet when compared with other ducks are very small. Mr. T Whittaker, of Ranworth, Lodge,Nottinghamshire,who had many opportunities of studying this bird stated, " In flying the feet of this bird is held quite an inch above the tail,apparently to give it a good balance,as the wings are very far back"

Lord Lilford, observed, " When flying alone and un-alarmed, the Shoveler is observed to turn its head constantly,as if looking for an acquaintance or some special object,and the Pintail duck has the same habit"

The flesh of the Shoveler was much praised and extolled by some,and as strongly condemned by others. One eminent writer thought that this was entirely down to the food consumed for some weeks previously. Another wrote " I do not consider that for the table it can be compared with the Mallard,Widgeon**,Teal** or Pochard** -the flesh being soft and with a muddy flavour-I confess however, to be in a minority in this matter"

Sir R.Payne-Gallwey a no mean authority in his day,considered these ducks to the point of edible excellence,come second when shot in fresh water. " I have seen fat an inch thick on the Shoveler" he placed the Pintail duck first for delicacy of flavour.

According to Audubon* {America} " They are exceedingly good birds to eat,appertaining as they do, more to fresh water than to salt"

** These birds have already been reviewed in this series.

* See John James Audubon an early American Icon {Hub}.

Courtesy of Mr.XanaduBirds . Standard YouTube license.

Female Northern Shoveler

Taken in Kok Kolkata West Bengal India
Taken in Kok Kolkata West Bengal India | Source

Breeding,nest and eggs

They arrive on their breeding grounds from March where they breed in solitary pairs or loose groups. In the more northern parts the season will only commence from mid-April to June.The nest is sometimes placed in dry and as often wet situations, both near and occasionally some distance from water.

There are records of the nest of this species being found in long heather,and it always well-sheltered and concealed,constructed of dry grasses and bents { a type of grass species}, the eggs being buried in the down of the bird. The down lining is dark with conspicuous white centres.

The female will deposit nine to eleven eggs which the female will incubate for 22-23 days. it is worthy of note that the male of this species stays with the female during this period,very unusual in duck species. The eggs are white and tinged with either a green or cream colour.

A few hours after they hatch the female leads the young to water where they swim and forage for themselves immediately. The young typically stay close to cover of emergent vegetation,and the female tends to them until they fledge which will be in a further 40-45 days.The ducklings can be distinguished from those of the mallard by their longer bills as soon as they are born. However, when first hatched their is no indication of the great breadth of bill which soon begins to distinguish this species.

The males undergo a post breeding moult which is known by ornithologists as the eclipse. At this stage they resemble more closely the female.{ See Photograph below} During this stage which lasts for four weeks or so they are flightless. The birds that do migrate will undertake the task during the late Autumn in western Europe.

Pair with male in eclipse

Taken in Munster Germany
Taken in Munster Germany | Source


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi, You are welcome thank you for your visit and for leaving your comments on the Wood Duck in your part of the world. Best wishes to you.


      Hello Devika, thank you too for your gracious comments and for your kind votes,always much appreciated from you. Best wishes to you..

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Hi D.A.L. I have not seen ducks for a while. The photos presented here are very beautiful. There aren't any ducks in the region I live in. You have enlightened me on another prefect hub. Voted up, useful, interesting.

    • naturegirl7s profile image

      Yvonne L B 

      3 years ago from Covington, LA

      I enjoyed this article and found it useful and interesting. The most common duck in the wooded area of South Louisiana where I live is the wood duck. It nests in houses which we built. Thanks for the insight into ducks of the UK.


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