Friday, November 11, 2011

Headless Ducks

Posted by Greg Gillson
Can you identify the species? Can you identify the gender? Headless ducks, Oregon, September 2011 by Greg Gillson.
When the ducks migrate back into the lower latitudes of North America in the autumn, they are often hard to identify by plumage alone. Of course, hens are always nondescript, the young-of-the-year are even tougher, and the drakes are often still in the female-like "eclipse" plumage of the breeding season. No wonder many birders forgo trying to identify summer and early autumn ducks.
The males attain their brighter colors in late winter, when they are easiest to identify.

If you didn't already know, those ducks above are Northern Shovelers.

In his book, Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion, Dunne nickname's the Northern Shoveler, "The Headless Duck."

The bill on this bird is "preposterously large," according to Dunne. This field mark alone is enough to identify this species. However, when feeding on the water, the bill and most of the head is often submerged. Rather than tip up to feed like other puddle or dabbling ducks, the shoveler takes on the role of "aquatic vacuum cleaner." The birds often form large dense flocks, swimming forward shoulder-to-shoulder and sweeping their bill from side-to-side, the males giving an incessant mechanical took, took, took... call.

Because of the hint of the bright plumage to come, you might deduce that the bird on the right is a drake and the browner bird on the left a hen. But look again. When the males are in their cryptic summer plumage look at the following two points. The bills of males are black; the bills of females are mottled orange. The eyes of males are yellow; the eyes of females are brown. Thus, with their yellow eyes, both birds in the photo above are males.


  1. Great post. A duck I have seen rarely and luckily for me, with a head.


  2. Fascinating! At my new lunch-hour birding patch there is a pond. Yesterday, when I first arrived there was a female brown duck that I didn't recognize. It flew off. At the end of my lunch-hour, there was another brown duck that I didn't recognize that had a different subtle color pattern. I got photos of both and had to study the field guides. The first was a female Ring-necked Duck and the 2nd was an eclipse plumage Redhead. I'm not used to seeing them on their own.

  3. Very interesting and informative post about this fun to spot duck. That book of Pete's is one of my mainstays. My other favorite is Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman. Have a great weekend! ~karen

  4. ...Northern Shovelers are among my favorite ducks! I love that "preposterously large" bill!