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Roseate Spoonbill
Platalea ajaja
– Family
Authors: Dumas, Jeannette V.

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Adult Roseate Spoonbills (pair); Louisiana, April
Figure 1. Distribution of the Roseate Spoonbill

Nicknamed the “Flame Bird” by R. P. Allen (1947), and known locally as pink, pinky, or pink curlew, the Roseate Spoonbill is unmistakable and one of North America’s most unusual looking wading birds. Its plumage is truly flamboyant, combining a pink body with carmine red on the wings and tail-coverts with a rich tawny, almost orange, tail. The bill is shaped like a spatula, giving this species its name. The Roseate Spoonbill is one of 6 species of spoonbills worldwide, the only one found in the New World, and the only spoonbill that has brilliantly colored plumage; the others are chiefly white. It is also the only spoonbill whose head becomes completely unfeathered and colorful as the bird matures.

Relatively little is known about this species. It is essentially a Neotropical bird whose range extends north into the southern United States. The Florida and West Indies population appears disjunct from the South America population because of rarity in the Lesser Antilles, and from remaining populations in the United States and Middle America because of gaps along the U.S. Gulf Coast and the Yucatán Channel. Members of this species, especially immatures, occasionally disperse great distances, but seasonal patterns of movement are poorly understood and nothing is known about regional philopatry.

The Roseate Spoonbill is generally an uncommon resident in the United States, depending on location and season. Historical records indicate that the U.S. population was more abundant before the plume-hunting era than today. It was decimated by feather hunters beginning as early as the 1830s, when John James Audubon saw Roseate wings being sold as fans in St. Augustine, Florida, but disturbance at shared rookeries for the highly prized plumes of egrets probably took the greatest toll on the species (Allen 1942). Breeders persisted in only a few locations in Florida and Louisiana into the 1940s, and the species was virtually extirpated in Texas until the 1920s. Despite eventual population increases throughout its U.S. range, this spoonbill remains vulnerable, especially in Florida, and it is designated a Species of Special Concern in both Florida and Louisiana.

Like all other spoonbills, the Roseate Spoonbill frequents shallow aquatic habitats and feeds by tactolocation: While walking, it swings its head and the slightly open “spoon” of its bill in the water from side to side in a semicircular motion. The bill snaps shut when it contacts prey, mainly fish and aquatic invertebrates. It is gregarious while feeding, nesting, and roosting. The full behavioral repertoire of the Roseate has yet to be described.

Much of our general knowledge of the Roseate Spoonbill still comes from R. P. Allen’s monograph (1942), especially descriptions of its ecology, molts and plumages, behavior, and history, beginning in the 1800s. Recent studies are more quantitative, focusing on reproductive biology and ecology in Texas and Florida Bay (White et al. 1982, Bjork and Powell 1994), and on seasonal patterns of movement in Florida (Robertson et al. 1983). Despite these advances, questions asked over 50 years ago about environmental cues that initiate nesting, demography including extent of genetic exchange among populations, and patterns of dispersal, remain unanswered (Sprunt 1939, Allen 1942).