Is that a flamingo in the water? More than likely that is not a flamingo you are seeing, but is the beautiful Roseate Spoonbill. The first time I saw this bird as a child, my first thought was flamingo! Then I noticed its odd shaped bill and realized that’s not like any flamingo I’ve ever seen before. This striking animal is a large wading bird with pink plumage and a distinct long bill that ends in a flat spoon. It stands two and a half to three feet tall and has a wingspan of over four feet.
Roseate Spoonbill chicks start out white with a slight pink tinge to their feathers, but as the bird matures the pink coloration becomes more prominent. This is caused by the food they eat. Their diet consists largely of crustaceans (especially shrimp). Shrimp eat algae and algae makes red and yellow pigments, called carotenoids. So the more carotenoid-rich organisms these spoonbills eat, the pinker they get. Diet is the same reason flamingos have pink feathers. Maturing may bring these birds a brilliant coloration, but like many people, Roseate Spoonbills also go bald as they mature.
The strange shape to the bill of the Roseate Spoonbill helps it to filter through muddy water for food. It sweeps its bill back and forth in a sweeping motion to catch food. Spoonbills feed more by touch than site; their bill has sensitive touch receptors that detect vibrations given off by prey. When something touches the inside of the spoon, the bill closes on it quickly. The combination of touch receptors in the bill and fast reflexes allow the spoonbill to feed in cloudy water and at night.
These birds can be seen in the bays, marshes, and estuaries along the Gulf this time of year. One great thing about this spoonbill is that even for inexperienced birders, like myself, these birds are easy to identify if you can spot one. You can also identify them in the air not only by their distinct coloration, but also because they fly with their necks outstretched, unlike herons.
Unfortunately, the Roseate Spoonbill was nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800s. Their pink feathers were prized for adornment of women’s hats and could bring in a pretty penny to hunters. Numbers slowly increased during the 1900s as they recolonized along the Gulf Coast. Today, they have a stable population, but habitat loss still poses a threat.
Andrea Sanchez is a summer intern from TAMU at the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, 103 Highway 332 W. in Lake Jackson. Contact the observatory at 979-480-0999 or visit gcbo.org.