Northern Shoveler

Anas clypeata

One look at the bill of a northern shoveler should be enough to provide you with an accurate species identification: their flattened shovel-like bills are unique among waterfowl and allow them to feed on tiny plankton by sweeping their heads across the water’s surface.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

Female (left) and Male (right) Northern Shovelers

Female (left) and Male (right) Northern Shovelers

Juvenile Northern Shoveler

Juvenile Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler in non-breeding plumage

Northern Shoveler in non-breeding plumage

Northern Shoveler in-flight

Northern Shoveler in-flight

Northern Shoveler parent swimming with her young

Northern Shoveler parent swimming with her young

Appearance & Identification

What do Northern Shovelers look like?

One key feature used to identify a northern shoveler – male and female – is its wide, flat, spatula-like bill (dark gray in males and orange in females). However, there are a number of other visual features that will quickly confirm a positive identification.

Male northern shovelers in breeding plumage have a dark green head, golden eye, white breast and chestnut flanks, and belly. Their wings appear black and white when not in flight, but when spread, a pale blue patch is visible at the front, separated from a green panel by a narrow white band. Their legs and feet are orange at all times of the year, but brighter when breeding.

Out of breeding season, males lose their showy coloring, developing a dark brown head, neck, breast, and belly and lighter brown flanks and upper wings. Two pale white crescents are visible on their faces, at the base of the bill, and although the blue and green patches can still be seen on the wings, the colors become more drab than earlier in the year.

Female northern shovelers lack any of the colorful body markings seen on breeding males but do have the same blue and green wing patches that are visible in flight. Their bodies are patterned all over in lighter and darker brown markings. Their bill and feet are yellowish-orange, and their eyes are brown or brownish-yellow.

Juvenile northern shovelers are similar in appearance to adult females but darker and less heavily patterned. The blue wing patches seen on adults are more gray in juvenile shovelers, and their legs are pale yellow to pale orange.

<p><strong>Male Northern Shoveler</strong></p>

Male Northern Shoveler

<p><strong>Female Northern Shoveler</strong></p>

Female Northern Shoveler

How big are Northern Shovelers?

Northern shovelers are medium-sized ducks that are smaller than mallards, but larger than blue-winged teals. Males are typically larger and heavier than females.

  • Length: 44 cm to 52 cm (17.3 in to 20.5 in)
  • Wingspan: 70 cm to 84 cm (27.6 in to 33.1 in)
  • Weight: 400 g to 1000 g (14.1 oz to 35.3 oz)
Northern Shoveler taking off from lake

Northern Shoveler taking off from lake

Calls & Sounds

What sound does a Northern Shoveler make?

A rather quiet duck species, northern shovelers are not particularly vocal outside of the breeding season. When pairs are forming, males can be heard making a wheezy ‘thic’ or ‘took’ sound in flight and when alarmed. Females make a nasal quacking sound.

On take-off, a shoveler’s wings can be heard making a distinctive ‘rattling’ sound, unlike any other duck species.

Northern Shoveler in-flight

Northern Shoveler in-flight


What do Northern Shovelers eat?

Northern shovelers are surface-feeding ducks, taking advantage of the comb-like structure on the edge of their bill to filter out tiny food particles from the water of the lakes and pools they live on.

By moving their heads from side to side while dipping beneath the water surface, they are able to sift out crustaceans, molluscs, aquatic insects, and their larvae as well as seeds, algae, leaves, and other plant matter.

Water beetles, minnows, and snails are also commonly eaten.

What do Northern Shoveler chicks eat?

Young northern shoveler chicks feed independently from the outset, being led by the mother to foraging grounds shortly after hatching. Their initial diet consists mainly of zooplankton, aquatic invertebrates, and duckweed.

Northern Shoveler Female (left) and Male (right) feeding side-by-side on the lake

Northern Shoveler Female (left) and Male (right) feeding side-by-side on the lake

Habitat & Distribution

What is the habitat of a Northern Shoveler?

Breeding habitats favored by northern shovelers include shallow pools and marshes with a good level of vegetation cover, with grasslands nearby where secluded nest sites can be established.

In winter, northern shovelers gather at large reservoirs, freshwater marshes, swamps, and flooded gravel pits.

What is the range of a Northern Shoveler?

The geographical range of northern shovelers covers a broad geographical area. Breeding occurs throughout Eurasia and western and northern North America. Breeding northern shoveler pairs are present in the Great Lakes region of the eastern United States.

Once breeding is complete, although some northern shoveler populations remain resident in their home territories all year round, others migrate south to wintering grounds scattered throughout north-east Africa, India, southern China, and Japan to Mexico and southern North America.

Where do Northern Shovelers live?

Around 5 million northern shovelers are estimated to live in North America, with up to 3.5 million of these spending winter in Mexico.

In Europe and Asia, have an estimated population of between 1.5 and 2 million, of which up to 95,000 pairs breed in Russia. 400,000 shovelers spend winters in south-west Asia and East Africa, and up to 1 million in South Asia.

How rare are Northern Shovelers?

After mallards and blue-winged teals, northern shovelers are believed to be the third-most abundant duck species in North America. They are seen more in winter than summer across most of the United States, with populations in northern Canada shifting southwards after breeding.

Although during the breeding season, shovelers are less commonly spotted in the UK, once winter arrives British wetlands welcome a relatively large influx of incoming migrants, and sightings become far less rare.

Female Northern Shoveler feeding in the marshes

Female Northern Shoveler feeding in the marshes

Where can you see Northern Shovelers in North America?

The population of northern shovelers was estimated at 5 million in 2015, with Saskatchewan, Alaska, and Yukon being home to the largest number of breeding pairs.

Certain wintering grounds, found in the southern US and into Mexico, attract large numbers of migratory northern shovelers each autumn, in particular the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys and San Francisco Bay in California.

Where can you see Northern Shovelers in the UK?

In the UK breeding shovelers are most commonly spotted in southern and eastern England, especially around the Ouse Washes, the Humber, and the North Kent Marshes.

In winter, some of our breeding population may choose to migrate further south, to France or Spain, while arrivals from northern Europe can be seen across the whole country, particularly at Rutland Water in the East Midlands and Abberton Reservoir in Essex.

Portrait of a Northern Shoveler

Portrait of a Northern Shoveler

Lifespan & Predation

How long do Northern Shovelers live?

The average life expectancy of a northern shoveler is around 3 years. However, some individual northern shovelers live much longer lives, including one ringed bird aged 22 years and 7 months, discovered in 2009. First-time breeding is believed to occur at one year of age.

What are the predators of Northern Shovelers?

Red foxes pose a particular threat to nesting female northern shovelers and their eggs and young. Mink are also a threat, and nests are frequently destroyed by skunks, crows, magpies and gulls.

Are Northern Shovelers protected?

Northern shovelers, their eggs, nests, and feathers are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 in the United States. The species is also included in Canada’s Migratory Bird Convention Act of 1994.

In the UK, northern shovelers are a Schedule I bird under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, of 1981, meaning their eggs, nests, and young are given additional protection against being damaged or destroyed. It is illegal to knowingly kill, injure or capture a shoveler in Britain.

Are Northern Shovelers endangered?

Habitat destruction and loss of wetlands is a threat to the long-term future of northern shovelers, but for now, the species is widespread and abundant across much of its range and they are considered a species of least concern.

Shovelers have Amber status on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list, due to UK wetlands being home to more than 20 percent of the wintering population of shovelers in north-western Europe.

Pair of Northern Shovelers swimming on the river

Pair of Northern Shovelers swimming on the river

Nesting & Breeding

Where do Northern Shovelers nest?

Typical nest sites chosen by northern shovelers are found in grassy areas, a short distance away from open water.

Shallow depressions are made in the ground or short grass by the female, which is then lined with grasses, and other plant material and soft down. Nearby vegetation, such as weeds, tussocks, or thickets helps to conceal the nest.

When do Northern Shovelers nest?

The breeding season for northern shovelers usually takes place from April until June. Earliest hatchlings are usually seen from mid-May onwards. One brood per year is typical, with replacement clutches occasionally being attempted if a brood fails early enough in the season.

What do Northern Shoveler eggs look like?

Up to nine smooth plain pale buff to greenish-gray eggs are laid by female northern shovelers, who incubate their clutch alone for 22 to 27 days. Eggs measure 52 mm by 37 mm (2 in by 1.5 in). Females raise young alone, leading them to water shortly after they hatch.

Do Northern Shovelers mate for life?

Northern shovelers form strong pair bonds for the duration of a breeding season but will find a new mate the following year. Their bond is one of the strongest of all waterfowl, with pairs beginning to form on wintering grounds and remaining together until just before departure from breeding grounds in the fall.

<p><strong>Nest of a Northern Shoveler with ten eggs</strong></p>

Nest of a Northern Shoveler with ten eggs

<p><strong>Northern Shoveler ducklings</strong></p>

Northern Shoveler ducklings


Are Northern Shovelers aggressive?

Pursuit flight chases are the most common form of physical interaction with other northern shovelers, with actual physical contact (e.g. biting, wing flapping) observed only on rare occasions.

Northern shoveler males are highly protective of their territory once a nest is established and do not tolerate interactions from other shovelers.

During migration and on winter foraging grounds, the species becomes more tolerant and sociable, with groups of several hundred northern shovelers gathering.

Where do Northern Shovelers sleep at night?

Northern shovelers roost overnight on the water, which offers safety from land predators. Typical overnight roosts, or loafing sites, include wetlands and flooded ditches.

Female Northern Shoveler resting by the lakeside

Female Northern Shoveler resting by the lakeside


Do Northern Shovelers migrate?

Northern shovelers are usually strongly migratory, breeding in northern regions, and heading southwards to lower-latitude winter feeding territories each fall. They are one of the latest dabbling duck species to arrive in breeding grounds each spring and one of the first to leave.

Are Northern Shovelers native to North America?

In North America, shovelers are considered one of the most common and abundant duck species, after mallards and blue-winged teals.

Breeding takes place across Alaska, western Canada, and much of the western United States, with some birds along the west coast resident in their breeding territories all year round. In winter, most northern shoveler populations shift southwards and the species is widespread across the southern states, as well as regularly spotted in passage across the eastern US.

Are Northern Shovelers native to the UK?

Shovelers are native to the UK in small numbers, with a breeding population of around 1,100 pairs mainly based in southern and eastern England.

In winter, incoming migrants from northern Europe swell the shoveler population to more than 19,000 individuals, making it one of Europe’s most important sites for the species.

Small flock of Northern Shovelers in-flight

Small flock of Northern Shovelers in-flight


Is a northern shoveler a diving duck?

Northern shovelers are dabbling ducks, not diving ducks. They get their food from the water’s surface rather than diving deep underwater.

Why do northern shovelers swim in circles?

Swimming in circles is a foraging tactic commonly used by northern shovelers to stir up aquatic invertebrates living in the muddy pond or lake bottom, with the circular movement of the water stirring them up and causing them to rise to the surface, making foraging easier.

Why are they called Shovelers?

Shovelers take their name from their distinctively shaped bills, which resemble flattened spatulas or shovels.

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Quick Facts


Scientific name:

Anas clypeata

Other names:



Ducks, geese and swans

Conservation status:




44cm to 52cm


70cm to 84cm


400g to 1000g

Learn more about the Northern Shoveler

Other birds in the Ducks, geese and swans family

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