Roseate Spoonbill: The Flaming Bird


Look closely at nature. Every species is a masterpiece, exquisitely adapted to the particular environment in which it has survived. Who are we to destroy or even diminish biodiversity? 

– E. O. Wilson
Roseate Spoonbills arriving at Green Cay Wetlands in Boynton Beach, FL

Public Excitement

In Florida, very few birds produce a public commotion when spotted. And the Roseate Spoonbill is one of them. This incredible pink and carmine-feathered bird with one of the weirdest bills in the avian world makes people, including me, stop in their tracks when we are lucky enough to see them. 

You can find the Roseate Spoonbill in zoos, but nothing compares to seeing them in the wild because these timid and easily spooked birds are listed as a vulnerable species in Florida.

Human’s fascination with spoonbills dates back to prehistoric times

Humans have been fascinated by spoonbills since prehistoric times. In the southern part of Spain, in a cave called Tajo de las Figuras, archeologists found more than 208 drawings of birds (Lazarich, M., 2019). Two of them were spoonbills (Platalea leucordia). Images of spoonbills have also been discovered at the Gurnah tombs in Thebes, Egypt. In addition, spoonbills have also appeared in tombs in Thebes, Egypt. This discovery is not surprising because birds played an influential role in many aspects of Egyptian life, such as their spirituality (Bailleul-Lesuer, 2012). Birds, including spoonbills, were also used in hieroglyphs (Gardiner, A.H.1927). Even in China, archeologists found carved stones in the shape of spoonbills dated to the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD).

Sample of the compositional richness of bird paintings at Tajo de las Figuras.
This scene is embedded in the naturally-sloped morphology of the cave wall (Lazarich, M., 2019).
Detail of another section of the mural above. (Lazarich, M., 2019)

Pair of jars in the shape of spoonbills.
Northern China: Western Han Dynasty

But the main reason why people in Florida get all crazy when they see a spoonbill is because these astonishing, colorful birds almost became extinct in the United States.

Spoonbills share with Ibises their family name. Both groups belong to the Threskiornithidae family. 

There are six species of spoonbills in the world

The Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia is divided into three subspecies and broadly distributed across Europe, parts of Asia, including India and Sri Lanka. It winters in West and East Africa and S.E. China.

The Royal Spoonbill, Platalea regia, is a resident in most Oceania, including Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Tasmania, and Caledonia.

The African Spoonbill, Platalea regia, can be found from Senegal to South Africa and Madagascar.

The highly endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, Platalea minor, used to be a resident in most Asian countries, from N.E. Russia to continental China. Unfortunately, today it is only found in East Asia. With an estimated world population of just 3,941 individuals, the Black-faced spoonbill is classified as a globally ‘endangered’ species under the IUCN’s Red List. Each year, only 30 or so pairs are known to breed (WWF).

The Yellow-billed spoonbill, Platalea flavipes, is endemic to most of Australia’s coastal areas.

And lastly, we have the Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaia, which is the only spoonbill found in the Western Hemisphere, and it is the only one with a dazzling plumage.

The Flaming Bird

In truth, the title of this post comes from a book by Robert Porter Allen called The Flame Birds. Allen wrote the book as a personal account of his time studying one of the few roseate spoonbill colonies in Florida. Conservationists thought that these birds and their nesting colonies had disappeared entirely from North America until they discovered a colony in the Bottlepoint Key of Florida Bay in 1935. The discovery of this colony provided a unique opportunity to study the Roseate Spoonbill. 

Upon being requested by John H. Baker, Executive Director of the National Audubon Society, R.P. Allen conducted an exhaustive study of the life history of this almost extinct bird. He developed a comprehensive report, which provided recommendations on the best way to return the Roseate Spoonbill to its former breeding range in the United States. To this day (2021), the 1942 official report is still the most comprehensive study about the species ever made. We know a lot about this bird (ecology, molts, behavior, etc.) thanks to Allen’s extensive research between 1939 and 1941.

Roseate Spoonbills were nicknamed Flame Birds by Allen because, according to him, they resemble flames on the trees in which they build their nests and raise their young. However, I see more than just flames when I watch these birds move, whether they are bathing, flying, or foraging. Their graceful movements remind me of flaming torches, especially at dusk.

The Roseate Spoonbill: what do we know about it?

The Roseate Spoonbill is a strikingly pink medium-sized wading bird. Adults are bright pink during the breeding season, with a pale-green head and black skin at the ear openings and nape. The gular sac can be saffron-orange, and the eyes are red. They have white necks, backs, and breasts. Most of the body plumage is pink, accented with carmine wing and tail coverts, a yellow patch along the sides of wings, and a tawny-orange tail. Red is the predominant color on their long legs. The sexes are similar in plumage, but the male is somewhat larger in body and bill length. These differences are only apparent when a pair is seen together.

Spoonbill colors during the breeding season
Roseate Spoonbill foraging

Spoonbills mainly use tactile cues and sometimes visual cues to find their prey. The sensitive nerve endings in a spoonbill’s bill help them search for food in shallow water. Unlike other wading birds, they use a sweeping motion (check the video at the bottom of this post) with their head from side to side through water or mud. This process can be slow and tedious, at least for the observer, but as soon as the prey touches the bill, they quickly snap it shut to catch their meal.

The beautiful color of the Roseate spoonbill comes from canthaxanthin, a carotenoid pigment present in its diet of crayfish, crabs, and small fish. Canthaxanthin is also responsible for the color of flamingos and scarlet ibises.

As mentioned before, the Roseate Spoonbill is the only spoonbill endemic to the Western Hemisphere. Its breeding range is defined by the Neotropic and can be seen year-round from the southern USA (mainly near the coasts of Texas, Louisiana, and Florida) down to the north of Argentina and Chile. Although it is present in several Brazilian states, it is particularly abundant in the marshes and wetland habitats of the Pantanal*.

Range of the Roseate Spoonbill in the Americas

Spoonbills forage in shallow, open aquatic areas. Their hunting excursions take them to brackish, salty, saline, and freshwater areas, including pools, lagoons, marshes, flooded pastures, and tide pools. They also search for food in swamps, streams, and mangroves.

Above Roseate Spoonbill photographed at Barigui Park in Curitiba, Brazil

Like Great Egrets and Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills are reliable indicators for monitoring the quality of habitats. Since nesting and fledging success are directly connected to food availability, which is affected by the health of their habitat, spoonbills are the perfect reflection of the productivity of the wetland ecosystem. Roseate spoonbills face many threats, including shooting and trapping, pesticides and other contaminants, disturbance at the nest and roost sites. Although, alteration and degradation of their habitat remain the greatest threat of all.

It almost went the way of the Dodo Bird**

At the beginning of this story, I wrote about the roseate spoonbill’s near extinction in the U.S. and its current status in Florida.

Like the great egret, the snowy egret, and other heron species, roseate spoonbills were also victims of the plume trade at the beginning of the 20th century. However, unlike the egrets and herons, the plumes of the roseate rapidly depreciated because their color faded considerably after the bird died. After all, what gives roseate spoonbills’ feathers beautiful colors are the carotenoid pigments found in their food, and a dead bird can’t eat.

Regardless, they continued to vanish very fast because they became collateral damage. Roseate spoonbills have always built their nests in colonies with the birds that were the primary victims of the feather trade. If they didn’t die because they were shot, they would flee, leaving their nests with eggs and babies that had no chance of survival without parental care.

That said, many accounts indicate that their demise began around 1850, before the plume-trade frenzy. Moreover, scattered data suggests that these birds were abundant at the beginning of the 19th century, living in the pristine wetlands and marshes of Florida, Louisiana, and Texas (among others). But they had their habitats consistently destroyed to make way for roads, highways, and cities, among other things. 

Roseate spoonbills are particularly susceptible to changes in their wetland habitats. Therefore, food availability and the quality of their habitat are directly related to the ability of these species to reproduce successfully. With the destruction of those habitats, the birds didn’t have enough healthy places to nest and raise their chick successfully, so they ended up leaving looking for “greener pastures,” as we say.

Once laws that stopped the massacre of all these birds were enacted, most wading bird populations in Florida, including the roseate spoonbill, began to recover. In fact, the spoonbills showed an impressive recovery. They went from a few individuals to almost 2400 breeding birds according to the census of 1978-79 (Powell, G, Bjork, R, Ogden J et al. 1989). But, unfortunately, this recovery did not last long because habitat changes continued to be made, and the fragile and profoundly irritated roseate spoonbill decided to leave us once again.

Not all is gloomy, though, because the Roseate Spoonbill seems to be coming back. Actually, the 2020 South Florida Wading Bird Report developed by the South Florida Water Management District showed that while most birds produced fewer nests than their 10-year average, the roseate spoonbills surprised us with 1,262 nests, a significant improvement over recent years and more than double the 10-year average of 514 nests.

Is this a positive sign? Only time will say. In the next post, I’ll cover why roseate spoonbill populations declined to scary low levels. I’ll also cover what is being done to help increase the population size of this legendary bird by expanding its habitat.

Roseate Spoonbill foraging

Notes

* The Pantanal Conservation Area consists of a cluster of four protected areas with a total area of 187,818 ha. Located in western central Brazil at the southwest corner of the State of Mato Grosso, the site represents 1.3% of Brazil’s Pantanal region, one of the world’s largest freshwater wetland ecosystems. The headwaters of the region’s two major river systems, the Cuiabá and the Paraguay rivers, are located here, and the abundance and diversity of its vegetation and animal life are spectacular.

** The Dodo was a one-meter-tall, pigeon-like, flightless bird, last spotted by a Dutch mariner in 1662 near Mauritius. Of all the species that became extinct, the dodo has become a kind of metaphor for extinction. To “go the way of the dodo” means that something is destined to go out of existence.

References

Lazarich, M., Ramos-Gil, A., & González-Pérez, J.L. (2019). Prehistoric Bird Watching in Southern Iberia? The Rock Art of Tajo de las Figuras Reconsidered. Environmental Archaeology, 24, 387 – 399.

Bailleul-Lesuer, R., & Ressman, A.R. (2012). Between heaven and earth: birds in Ancient Egypt. 

Gardiner, A.H. (1927). Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs.

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