by Kyle Sweet, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist
Size and Shape – Medium-sized water bird with a long bill that is flattened to a spoon at the end
Color Pattern – Pale pink with brighter pink shoulders and rump. Yellowish-green head with red eyes
Behavior – Wade through shallow waters swinging head side to side with their bill under water. Their body is horizontal, parallel to the water while foraging.
Habitat – Fresh, Brackish and Salt Waters. Forested swamp and wetlands. Roost in mangroves along the water’s edge.
The Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja, may possibly be one of the most admired birds in southwest Florida. It’s a relatively uncommon bird and is found in coastal marshes, mudflats and mangrove keys throughout coastal Florida, Texas and southwest Louisiana.
They forage in shallow waters, walking forward slowly while swinging their heads from side to side, sifting through the muddy water with their specialized wide, flat bill. They detect their prey by feel and “snap” close their bill and grab it. In some cases they may also forage by sight. Either way, there is a wide variety of prey that it grabs including small fish, shrimp, crayfish, crabs, beetles and some plant material. The pink coloration of the Roseate Spoonbill is acquired by the foods they eat. Crustaceans and other aquatic invertebrates contain pigments called carotenoids that help their feathers turn pink.
They breed mainly during the winter in Florida and during the spring in Texas. Tampa Bay is the location of a large breeding site for them here in Florida that I’ve heard referenced many times. They typically nest in mangrove trees shrubs 5-15’ above the ground or water in a bulky platform of sticks with a deep hollowed center lined with twigs and leaves.
The Roseate Spoonbill was hunted for its feathers in the late 1800’s and populations were greatly depleted before protections were put in place for this and many other water birds. That threat is no longer but now the spoonbill faces the threat of adequate food availability and habitat degradation. Changes in water flows affecting salinity are a big threat as well as their vulnerability to human disturbance caused by boating and other recreational activities near nesting sites.
Roseate spoonbills are a treat to see on the islands and can surely be found in the right places at the right time. Low water levels are a must for their feeding and timing of the year dictates that throughout our local freshwater areas. Typically seen in small flocks wading or just standing perched, they are candy for the camera and brighten up the pages of local publications and wildlife photographer portfolios. As always, a good camera lens or spotting scope makes the viewing much more rewarding. Enjoy the “pink in paradise” Roseate Spoonbill that call Southwest Florida and the barrier islands home.
As humans age, we lose our hair but as Roseate Spoonbills age, they lose the feathers on top of their heads. The balder the bird, the older it is.
The Roseate Spoonbill is one of six species of spoonbills in the world and the only one in the Americas.