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The Shoveler. By John McEwen

Blog | By John McEwen | Dec 01, 2023

Only 1,000 pairs of the shoveler breed in the British Isles.

That is a quarter of the number of mandarin-duck pairs. The winter ‘influx’ of 19,000 birds (a fifth of the north-western European population) is dwarfed by wintering teal (430,000), wigeon (445,000) and mallard (665,000).

Globally, shovelers are widespread and numerous (5.9 million). But to see some – usually in passage, on an urban lake – is always an event. This is because of the thrillingly conspicuous drake, its long scapular feathers worthy of adorning the helmet of an imperial governor.

Its colours are the same as those of the shelduck. One of its colloquial names is ‘sheldrake’, ‘shel’ meaning ‘variegated plumage’, from Middle Dutch schillede. No less noticeable is the spatulate bill. Thus its name Spatula clypeata – ‘spoon-shaped’/ ‘shield-bearing’. It’s also called Anas [duck] clypeata. At four inches, the bill is a fifth of a shoveler’s length, and spoon-shaped, like that of the spoonbill. In Norfolk, the shoveler was also called a ‘spoon bill’ – misleading because spoonbills are a heron species.

In his career as a conservationist, Sir Peter Scott (1909-89) let his artistic talent serve the unemotional demands of science. It contrasted with his pre-war artistic heyday, when his paintings were filled with the lonesome and twilit romance of wildfowling. Shovelers Rising Above Reeds (1934) was an early success.

The shoveler drake’s plumage also provides one of the most decorative of the measured drawings of dead-bird specimens in Tunnicliffe’s Birds by Charles Tunnicliffe (1901-79).page1image26829344

The shoveler’s bill is principally a filter as, head extended, the bird weaves CARRY AKROYD its way, dabbling from side to side, along the surface of shallow water, often in large flocks comically circling in this way to stir up food. But it will also shovel for food – and is notably carnivorous for a dabbling duck.

The flesh is considered to have a muddy taste, so in Britain the shoveler has been largely disdained as a sporting bird. This is not the case in the United States. The US Fish and Wildlife Service allocates how many of each licensed bird species a hunter can shoot in a season. In 2019-21, nearly half a million shovelers were shot.

The bird’s courtship ritual involves a similar procedure to its filter-feeding. It is described by John Guille Millais (1865-1931), artist, author, wildfowler, naturalist, seventh and youngest child of the Pre-Raphaelite Sir John Millais Bt (1829-96): ‘He [the drake] swims slowly up to her, uttering a low guttural croak ... konk konk ... elevating his head and neck and jerking his bill upwards. The female then bows in recognition and both proceed to swim slowly round in circles, one behind the other, with the water running through their bills.’

The time I have seen most shovelers was on a spring voyage down the Nile, where, at regular intervals, rafts of them were distantly viewable. It seems they are not depicted in the ancient tombs and have no place among the Egyptian gods.

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