Whether you shoot spoonies or pass them up, appreciate them this season
I caught myself dissing northern shovelers the other day. Didn't mean to do it. I guess it's pre-programmed into most duck hunters. In fact, any mention of shovelers is usually followed by a smirk or chuckle.
Shovelers — also commonly called spoonbills, spoonies, smiling mallards or Hollywood mallards — rarely top the wish lists of most waterfowlers. It's easy to see why. With their somewhat awkward appearance and questionable table qualities, these little puddle ducks are usually overshadowed by their prettier, tastier puddler cousins and even many diving ducks. Most hunters pass up shovelers in favor of other birds, and some ethically challenged folks even stomp spoonies into the mud after shooting them by mistake.
That's too bad, as these interesting ducks possess many fine qualities. And because their North American populations have swelled recently, hitting 4.3 to 4.6 million birds, hunters throughout the United States see spoonies fairly often. So although I usually give shovelers a free pass over my decoys, I'll at least sing their praises a bit.
Spoonies are widespread, breeding in northern Europe, Asia and North America, and wintering in Africa, India, southern Europe, Central America, the southern United States and northern South America. They're named and nicknamed, of course, for their large spatulate bill, which features fine comb-like structures called lamellae. These help strain food from the water, including vegetation, plankton and aquatic invertebrates. Their diet often features a high percentage of the latter, which probably contributes to their reputation as a bad-tasting duck.
Hen shovelers are fairly drab, but drakes in full breeding plumage are among the world's prettiest ducks, featuring a black bill, brilliant green head, white neck and shoulder, deep chestnut belly and flanks, and blue, white and green on the wing shoulder and speculum. And no one can criticize a shoveler's flying skills, as these nimble ducks zip, twist and soar with great speed and agility.
In 38 years of duck hunting, I've shot a whopping 38 shovelers. Many, I admit, were by mistake when I was young. Actually, spoonies were sort of a novelty when I cut my waterfowling teeth. A buddy and I celebrated a shoveler he shot during a memorable October afternoon hunt 26 years ago that also saw a limit of mallards and a bonus snow goose. And early-morning flocks of spoonies used to fool my friends and I when we hunted bluebills on the shoreline of a large Wisconsin lake.
But as the seasons passed and my duck identification skills improved, I began to let shovelers pass, partly because they decoy rather easily and also because of their aforementioned table qualities. That doesn't mean every shoveler tastes bad. I've actually had some that were pretty good. And others, marinated or used in stews or fajitas, tasted just fine. But generally, their meat has a muddy flavor, probably on par with ruddy ducks, but a notch better than goldeneyes.
None of that means you should feel compelled to pass up shovelers. The decision to shoot or pass any duck is personal. Take whatever birds you like, provided it's in legal, ethical fashion. Or pass whichever ducks you choose, shovelers included, if you're holding out for specific species.
But whether you shoot them or just watch, appreciate shovelers this season. They're pretty cool little birds; miracles of evolution that add depth and variety to our days in the marsh.