While visiting Carmel, Indiana last month I observed one of the most outwardly distinctive of the dabbling ducks; its elongated, spoon-shaped bill has comb-like projections along its edges, which filter out food from the water.
The Northern Shoveler inhabits wetlands across much of North America. The males have iridescent green heads, white chests and rusty sides. Females are grayish-brown overall; some of their feathers have light edging with darker centers.
Their spatulate bills, equipped with small, comb-like structures on the edges, act like sieves, allowing the birds to skim crustaceans and plankton from the water’s surface. Flocks of shovelers often swim with their bills submerged in front of them, straining food from the muddy soup of shallow waters.
Mud-bottomed marshes rich in invertebrate life is their habitat of choice. Other dabbling ducks use their flat bills to strain food items from the water, but the spoon-shaped bill of the Northern Shoveler is an adaptation that takes this habit to the extreme.
Aptly nicknamed the spoonbill, the Northern Shoveler has the largest bill of any duck in North America.