ZOO-ology column: Think pink - Roseate spoonbill, a success story

Sept. 25, 2011 at 4:25 a.m.
Updated Sept. 26, 2011 at 4:26 a.m.

The roseate spoonbill, one of six species of spoonbills, is the only one living in the Western Hemisphere. Its feathers turn a rosey pink color from its diet of small fish and algae.

The roseate spoonbill, one of six species of spoonbills, is the only one living in the Western Hemisphere. Its feathers turn a rosey pink color from its diet of small fish and algae.

By Judie Farnsworth

There's something intriguing about a pink bird - especially a big pink bird.

Some people visiting our southern coastal regions excitedly call, "Flamingo!" Texas Zoo visitors may glance into our aviary with the same response.

As they get closer, they realize it's an odd looking "flamingo." When they get beyond the pink color, the naked greenish head and red eyes, they will notice it has long legs (also red). Aha, a clue! It's a wading bird. But most wading birds we see have spear-like bills to hunt with. This bill looks like it got run over and flattened - hmm.

What they're looking at is a roseate spoonbill, truly a strange looking bird. There are six species of spoonbills, but the roseate is the only one living in the Western Hemisphere (coastal Texas, Louisiana, southern Florida, Central and South America). Flamingos in the United States live only in areas of Florida.

The roseate spoonbill has a unique spatulate bill that works like a sifter. The bird wades in (up to) knee-deep, often muddy or clouded water. Nostrils are located at the top of its bill so they don't get waterlogged. While watchful shorebirds stab at food and flamingos scoop, the spoonbill hunts mainly by touch. Holding its bill slightly open, it sweeps side to side creating mini whirlpools that pull small prey from the mud. This feeding style is called head-swinging. Sensitive touch receptors along the bill feel vibrations and the bill snaps closed.

Spoonbills and flamingos, as well as the brilliant scarlet ibis, get some color from their food. They eat small fish, amphibians, snails, tiny aquatic animals and crustaceans (shrimp, crawfish). Some of these crustaceans feed on algae containing pink and red pigments, so the bird's color may vary from pale to bright, depending on their diet. A brighter color may indicate a stronger, healthier bird. Breeding plumages are normally brighter.

In the mid- to late-1800s elegant egret and spoonbill plumes became the rage for ladies' hats. Whole spoonbill wings were also used as fans. Populations were nearly wiped out. They were hunted, but populations also suffered when habitat disturbance drove them from their nests. Happily, legal protection has been successful, resulting in a good recovery. As for the fashionable ladies, they soon found that the pink feathers, once collected, rapidly lost their color.

Roseate spoonbills are very social creatures, frequently found in feeding and nesting groups and with other wading birds. Group feeding offers more security. They're found in marshes, tidal ponds, rivers and feed in both fresh and saltwater. They are usually monogamous during a nesting season. Courtship involves dancing and bill clapping. Males present twigs and nesting materials, and when the female makes her choice, she builds the nest using the chosen gifts. Nests may be in trees or on the ground in offshore nesting colonies with terns, egrets and herons. The happy couple share nest duties and feed regurgitated material to their chicks. Sounds splendid, but if there's a threat, she's on her own (but doing a great job).

Come see roseate spoonbills and a scarlet ibis in all their glory at The Texas Zoo.

Judie Farnsworth is a longtime volunteer at the Texas Zoo specializing in educational programs.



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