Photo courtesy Charles Martinez
This week’s Bird of the Week, compliments of the Weminuche Audubon Society and Audubon Rockies, is the northern shoveler.
The northern shoveler belongs to a group of seven species of dabbling ducks known as the blue-winged ducks for the blue patches displayed on their wings in flight. Two other species in this group, the blue-winged teal and cinnamon teal, also occur in North America.
The more obvious characteristic that these species share is noted in their genus name, spatula. All three have spatulate bills, but the northern shoveler takes this characteristic to an extreme with its huge, spoon-shaped bill. Swimming in shallow, muddy water with its large bill barely submerged, the shoveler sucks water into the front of the bill and squirts it out the sides. Small crustaceans, seeds and aquatic invertebrates in the water are trapped inside the bill by tiny comb-like projections on the edges.
Shovelers also feed with only their heads submerged in water and while sweeping their bills side to side. Unlike many dabbling ducks, they rarely tip upside down to find food.
They can be found in stagnant, polluted waters avoided by other ducks. Fairly social, especially in winter, groups will swim together in circles to create a whirlpool-like effect which brings food to the surface.
In breeding plumage, the male has a glossy green head and neck, yellow eye, white chest and rust-colored flanks. Females are mottled brown. Both sexes can be identified by their large, spatulate bills, black in the male and dirty orange in the female.
North American populations breed near shallow wetlands in the prairie grass of Canada and the north central states. As is the case with many duck species, once incubation by the female starts, the male leaves her to raise the brood alone. A brightly colored male nearby would only serve to broadcast the location of a camouflaged female and her hidden nest.
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