ALWAYS IN SEASON: Ducks should draw birders beyond the backyard

The yard birds get a lot of attention this time of year, and that's not surprising. They are just outside our windows, after all, easy to see and -- for the most part -- easy to recognize. The others present a welcome challenge and an opportunity...

Northern Shoveler illustration by Mike Jacobs.

The yard birds get a lot of attention this time of year, and that’s not surprising.

They are just outside our windows, after all, easy to see and - for the most part - easy to recognize. The others present a welcome challenge and an opportunity to know the birds better.

Many of the yard birds are colorful. Many have subdued and subtle plumage that is compellingly beautiful when seen at close range.

Many have appealing and interesting behavior.

Some are familiar and so especially welcome.


No wonder, then, that so many people take so much joy in the yard birds.

Meanwhile, other equally colorful, equally interesting and equally challenging birds are out there.

Among these are the ducks.

Ducks present a number of advantages to birders. They are larger than most yard birds, to begin with. They frequent open habitats and so are usually easy to see and easy to examine closely. Unlike many yard birds, many of the ducks are resident birds here, spending the spring and summer raising broods and then becoming targets for hunters in the fall.

Spring is the time to look at ducks. The ducks are at their most colorful in spring - or the males, at least.

Most duck species are strongly dimorphic, which means that the sexes do not especially resemble each other. Males are brightly colored, the better to attract attention. Females are plainer, the better to avoid detection.

The Northern shoveler is a common species here that clearly demonstrates this trait. The males - drakes - have iridescent green heads and brilliant patches of cinnamon on the sides of the belly. This is set off with white on the breast and topped with black along the back.

Females - hens - are much plainer, brown overall with scalloping in black. The head is a warm tan color. There is some white in the tail.


The distinguishing characteristic of the shovelers is the bill. This is “spatulate” or spoon-shaped, an adaptation for gleaning food from open water.

This adaptation makes the shoveler a common denizen of small ponds and roadside ditches. It is by far the most common duck in the rainwater puddles along Grand Forks County Road 33, our usual route to Grand Forks from our place near Gilby, N.D.

These birds are usually in pairs; sometimes, we see a solitary drake.

In the fall, great rafts of shovelers gather on open water, staying quite late into the season. One fall, I encountered a flock of several thousand on Black Tiger Bay at the east end of Devils Lake. They were feeding just beyond the ice that a northwest wind had driven across the open reaches of the lake.

Suezette has declared the shoveler is her favorite duck.

This is not a sentiment that many others would share, perhaps. The species is held in low esteem by many of my hunting friends, who have a different name for it - one that is alliterative with shoveler.

Shovelers are due more respect. They are well adapted to a variety of wetland habitats, and this has enabled them to colonize a good part of the northern half of the planet. They are common across western North America as far south as Wyoming and Nebraska and as far north as the Arctic coast of Alaska.

In eastern North America, they are more local.


In Eurasia, they are widespread.

Shovelers could be confused with mallards, a fairly closely related species. Mallards have the same size - at the larger end of the range for ducks - the same body shape and the same general coloration, especially the iridescent green head.

At first glance, the “general impression of size and shape” (which birders shorten to “giss”) would be the same for these two species.

But the bill gives the shoveler away.

In all, our area has more than a dozen kinds of nesting ducks. Another half dozen are common migrants.

These range from the shovelers and mallards at the upper end of the size range to the teal at the lower end.

Ducks are wanderers, and strays sometimes show up from as far away as Europe. This was the case earlier in the year, when a European wigeon was spotted in the Red River Valley.

So, that brings the total number of duck species possible here to almost two dozen - plenty enough for rewarding birding.



Jacobs is a retired publisher of the Herald. Reach him at .

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