A large colourful duck, often found in coastal areas, the shelduck, is an established breeding waterbird in the UK. British wetlands are also a major wintering ground for the species, hosting up to 30 percent of Europe’s shelduck population each autumn.
Male shelducks are colourful and distinctive waterbirds. Their plumage is mainly white on their back and wings, and they have a dark green head and neck that looks almost black from a distance.
A chestnut band marks the upper belly, and there are black and chestnut wing feathers, as well as green secondary wing feathers that are only visible in flight. The underside of their tail is also a rich chestnut colour. The male shelduck’s bill is scarlet, with a prominent ‘knob’ at the base on the forehead.
Female shelducks have very similar markings to males, and share much of the same coloring. One distinct difference in features allows confident identification between the sexes: the knob on the female’s beak is significantly smaller and less defined than that of the male.
Females also show some white facial markings around the base of the bill in contrast to the solid glossy black-green of the male.
Juvenile shelducks are almost totally unalike in appearance to their parents and they do not acquire their full adult plumage until they reach breeding age in their second year.
In juvenile plumage, shelducks are largely white, with a black-grey cap, and greyish-black patches on their upper back and wings. The bill is pale pink-orange and a faint chestnut breast stripe is not yet complete and barely visible.
Shelducks are large ducks, significantly bigger than mallards and similar in size to small geese. Males are larger and heavier than females.
Common Shelduck in flight
Ahead of the breeding season, males make a weak, clear “whee-chew” whistling sound, which is thought to signal danger or threat.
Females make louder, lower-pitched calls, which carry over long distances, as well as rapid-fire honking quacks that sound like “gagagagaga”, often heard in flight.
Shelducks forage for aquatic invertebrates, including molluscs, insects, and crustaceans, with saltwater snails being a particular favourite. They also eat small fish and frogspawn, worms and algae, and may occasionally take the eggs from coots nesting nearby.
Young shelducks are able to swim and dive within hours of hatching, and are able to find food themselves almost immediately, diving underwater to forage for larvae and crustaceans and other aquatic invertebrates.
Shelduck foraging for food in the water
In winter, shelducks are commonly found on muddy estuaries and coastal wetlands, and most often live on salt or brackish water, although will also visit fresh water to drink.
Breeding habitats are found increasingly further inland, with sites such as gravel pits, reservoirs, lakes, and farmlands offering ideal nesting locations.
Shelducks frequently lay their eggs in abandoned rabbit burrows, so rural land with sandy soils can offer a perfect setting.
Shelducks are found across a wide distribution range encompassing much of Europe and Asia. The species is present from north-west Europe into Central Asia and north-eastern China.
To the south, shelducks breed at scattered locations along the Mediterranean and as far east as Iran and Afghanistan.
In winter, some shelducks migrate as far south as North Africa, and into Iraq, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and southern China. At the western edge of their winter range, UK wetlands welcome large numbers of migrating shelducks.
Shelduck swimming in the water, in its natural habitat
Shelducks live in coastal areas, and along mudflats and estuaries of major rivers. They are resident all around the coastline of England, Scotland and Wales, including the Scottish islands, and are also recorded around the entire coastline of the island of Ireland.
Shelducks are also increasingly common on inland bodies of water, including gravel pits and reservoirs.
Although around 7,850 shelduck pairs breed in Britain, their numbers rise dramatically in winter when resident birds are joined by several thousand migrating birds, bringing the winter population of shelducks to 51,000 birds.
For almost guaranteed sightings, in winter, head to north-west England, where around 10,000 shelducks can be seen gathering on the muddy estuaries of the Dee and Mersey rivers.
Three Shelducks feeding in a row on North Devon mudflats
The typical lifespan of a shelduck is around 10 years, with breeding for the first time happening at around 2 years. An individual ringed bird was recorded in 2013 as 19 years of age.
Shelducks are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, and cannot be hunted, killed, injured or taken into captivity. Their eggs and nest site are offered protection from damage and destruction.
In addition, shelducks are given wider protection by the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds, or African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) which promotes conservation efforts for wetland birds in Europe and Africa.
Shelducks are not endangered or threatened, and their numbers are relatively stable. However in the UK, shelducks are rated as an Amber species in the UK’s list of Birds of Conservation Concern.
This is due to British wetlands being of international significance for the shelduck population, as they host between 20 and 30 percent of the European population of shelducks.
A pair of Shelduck in flight together
Shelducks lay their eggs in cavities, such as tree hollows, disused animal burrows and may occasionally use nest boxes.
Occasionally nests are made in more open areas, such as vegetation on islands, and in such cases, grasses and bracken are used to create a rough nest, which is then lined with soft feathers.
Eggs laid by shelducks are creamy white in colour, with no markings. Eggs measure between 61 mm and 71 mm (2.4 in to 2.8 in) by 43 mm to 50 mm (1.7 in to 2 in), and weigh 65.5 g to 92.5 g (2.3 oz to 3.3 oz).
Between 3 and 18 eggs are laid, but a typical clutch contains 8 to 10. These are then incubated by the female alone for 28 to 31 days, while the male remains nearby, guarding the site from predators.
Shelducks form long-term monogamous pairs, but may temporarily part ways on moulting and wintering grounds before reuniting the following spring.
Young Shelduck swimming on the water
Far from being aggressive, shelducks are a highly sociable species and gather in vast numbers without any conflict or aggression outside of the breeding season.
When nesting, pairs may choose nest sites within a metre of other pairs, and this can sometimes lead to territorial clashes, but any aggression is generally reserved for other bird species that may approach their nest site.
The UK has a resident population of around 7850 breeding pairs. In winter, this number increases to around 51,000 birds in total, with the arrival of migrating birds from across the North Sea.
It’s common for large numbers of shelducks to migrate to moulting grounds in the Heligoland Bight in the Wadden Sea, along the coast of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, before returning to Britain to spend the winter there.
Shelducks chasing during the mating season
In terms of size, a shelduck sits between most duck species and smaller geese. It’s officially classed as a duck, and is one of the largest duck species, with some overlap in size with barnacle goose.
Contrary to what you may first think, the shelduck’s name has nothing to do with shells. It comes from the Old English word ‘sheld’ which means ‘mixed in colour’ or pied.
Shelducks can fly, and migrate over long distances to reach moulting and wintering grounds each year.
Family:Ducks, geese and swans
58cm to 67cm
110cm to 133cm
830g to 1.5kg
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