Foam Lake Birding No. 11

No. 11
This week’s featured duck is the other green head – the Northern Shoveler. It gets the name, Shoveler, from the shape of its bill, which is flared at the end to give it the appearance of a shovel or a spoon. In fact, a common nickname for the Shoveler is Spoonbill. – a name already applied to a large tropical wading bird. Because there are other Shovelers in the tropics, this one is designated the Northern Shoveler, however, since this is the only duck of its kind around here, it will be referred to simply as the Shoveler.
The shape of its bill determines its feeding habits. Unlike the mallard, the Shoveler seldom tips over to feed. Rather, it swims low in the water with its bill partially submerged or its head entirely submerged in order to strain the water for small pond creatures and plant material. Moreover, Shovelers almost never fly out to the fields to feed on grain. Their food is obtained from shallow and usually muddy waters. Because of this, they do not make a good table bird, even though they may be legally hunted. A roasted Shoveler, not properly prepared prior to cooking, definitely tastes like it has spent time in the mud.
In birding, as with any other activity, a person should learn some specialized words and their meaning. This makes it much easier to communicate with other birders, particularly when describing birds. Readers may have noticed that at times I have used the word, beak, and at other times the word, bill. Through many years of common usage, the word, beak, is applied to those birds that can peck or tear flesh; the word, bill, is for all the rest. Birding experts (ornithologists) use the word, bill, exclusively. Feel free to use either word. They are completely interchangeable. In addition to beaks and bills, I have been using the words, breast and belly in my descriptions. The breast is the part of the bird’s underside that starts at the base of the neck and extends about one third of the way down the body; the belly covers the remaining two thirds. There will be a few more of these technical words in the future, but I do intend to keep them to a minimum. It is the intent of this column to make things easier for birders not more difficult.
How does one distinguish between a Mallard and a Shoveler? First, the Shoveler is considerably smaller. In mixed flocks this is a good field mark. Second, the bill is quite different. With its long length and bulbous end, the Shoveler’s bill looks almost too big for the size of the duck. In fact, this characteristic can be used to distinguish it from all other ducks. Third, the drakes are distinctly coloured. Once an observer gets past the green head, the rest of the duck is markedly different. The Mallard has a rich brown breast; the Shoveler has a bright white one. The Mallard has a grey belly; the Shoveler has a rich brown one. Even at a glance, a green headed duck that shows a lot of white can safely be identified as a Shoveler. A Mallard is basically grey. These distinctions are even more pronounced when the ducks are in flight. From front to back, a drake Shoveler in flight is green (head), white (breast) and brown (belly); a drake Mallard is green, brown and grey, respectively. The hens are so similar there are only non-colour distinctions that can be easily used in the field.. In mixed flocks, size can be used, as can the shape of the bill. Probably, the best way to tell them apart is to see what drakes they are “hanging around” with. Even though ducks do occasionally hybridize (crossbreed), generally speaking, they associate with their own kind – Mallards with Mallards, Shovelers with Shovelers.
Both ducks are very common and quite often can be seen from a vehicle in potholes along roadsides. Today’s photo shows several Shovelers feeding in characteristic fashion with a Franklin’s Gull in the foreground.