Roseate spoonbill makes soaring rebound

Once killed for hats, pink bird a survivor

It may look like a flying umbrella or a colorful Avatar as it soars; it may look strange when it swings its spoon-like bill to create mini-whirlpools as it hunts by touch for small fish, snails and insects in muddy marshes and mangrove swamps no more than knee deep.

The stunning, pink roseate spoonbill, one of the most social creatures in the animal kingdom, is on the rebound.

In the photo slide show here, roseate spoonbills (scientific name: Platalea ajaja) glide through and above shallow waters of Everglades National Park.

Though solo in these photos, the bird nests in large colonies with ibises, storks, herons and egrets. Indeed, one roseate serves as a lookout for danger while another feeds with its bill under water.

Both papa and mama roseate spoonbill, which have identical coral pink feathers and crimson wings, incubate two to five brown-speckled eggs at a time, then take turns feeding the chicks until they are about eight weeks old.

The pencil-thin-legged birds, which live up to about the age of 10, breed in Florida from November to June missing most of our hurricane season. Along the coasts of Texas and Louisiana they breed from April to August.

At less than four pounds, the roseate spoonbill is a lightweight, but its adult wingspan spreads to nearly five feet.

Like the flamingo, the roseate spoonbill’s pink hue comes from its food including shrimp and other crustaceans, which in turn had fed on algae. However, it hasn’t always been calm waters for the spoonbills.

In the 19th century, the roseate spoonbill was nearly wiped out by zealous hunters. Its vivid feathers were prized for ladies’ hats and fans. (Irony #1: the roseate spoonbill’s pale green head is bald; irony #2: the roseate spoonbill’s color faded rapidly once poached, so the fans and hats didn’t last long.)

By the early 20th century, only about 15 nesting pairs had survived in the United States. In the 1940s they were declared a protected species. Luckily, the population recovered largely through efforts of  the National Audubon Society and a crackdown on poachers. Today the roseate spoonbill is no longer a protected species. In Florida alone, the roseate spoonbill rebound has gone from 15 to about 880 nesting pairs today. The present classification: “least concern’’ of being extinct in the wild in the immediate future.

The spoonbill’s chief threat remains mankind, only this time it’s real estate development and mosquito-control drainage, which alter the wilderness where the birds thrive. Among other enemies: turkey vultures, bald eagles, raccoons, jaguars, fire ants and alligators in the water.

Whimsical legend has it that the roseate spoonbill figured as a news source toward the end of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Ninety minutes before a U.S. Department of Defense announcement, The Miami News reported Cuba-bound Soviet warships were turning back at the eleventh hour. When a Time Magazine reporter asked how the now-defunct newspaper got the scoop, its editor, Bill Baggs, dryly responded: “A little roseate spoonbill told us.’’

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  • Lusciousleecy

    I enjoyed reading this. The bird is magnificently beautiful. I’m really glad to know that the color of its wings were quickly faded making it quite a disappointment for the poachers killing them for hats.

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