Geographical Range Southern United States, West Indies, Central America, South America
Habitat Freshwater and saltwater wetlands
Scientific Name Platalea ajaja
Conservation Status Common

Not a Flamingo!

It's easy to confuse an adult roseate spoonbill with a flamingo, until you look at their bills. Though both wading birds are bright pink, it's not hard to know which species is called "spoonbill."

Pretty in Pink

The adult roseate spoonbill is most noted for its stunning pink color and its uniquely-shaped bill. It is the only one of the six spoonbill species with brilliantly colored plumage. Its wings, abdomen and feathers on the side of its tail are bright pink, its tail is orange, and its legs are ruby-colored. The feather colors brighten in breeding season.

This medium-sized bird's body is rather stocky; its long legs allow it to wade into water. Both male and female roseate spoonbills have the same bright pink plumage, though males are somewhat larger and have somewhat longer bills.

Who Needs a Fork?

Not the roseate spoonbill! Having a "built-in" spoon on its beak can be a big help at mealtime. All spoonbills take advantage of this adaptation with a special feeding style known as "head-swinging." The birds plunge their bill nearly vertically under water and swing it side to side in wide arcs. In this way, they snag a host of small animals from the lake bottom.

Their diet is made up of small fish, crustaceans (especially shrimp and crayfish), insects, molluscs (such as slugs and snails), and other small aquatic animals. Any plant material they eat is probably accidental.

Roseate spoonbills feed at day or night.

Touchy-Feely

A spoonbill feeds more by touch than by sight - - a handy adaptation for an animal that often feeds in water that's muddy or clogged with dense vegetation. The horny bill is equipped with sensitive touch receptors that detect vibrations given off by prey. When something touches the inside of the spoon, the bill closes on it quickly. This keen sense of touch and fast reflexes allow the bird to feed in cloudy water, and at night.

A spoonbill will also chase prey that it detects by sight, but its sense of touch is much more reliable.

Spooning...and Afterwards

Roseate spoonbills don't mate for life, but they do keep the same mate for an entire breeding season. Before they breed, the male and female tempt each other in ritual courtship displays.

Both sexes cooperate to build the nest: the male collects most of the material and the female does most of the building. Spoonbills make large, well-constructed nests from sticks, and line them with leaves and grass. They build their nest in trees.

Females typically lay one to four eggs. Both mom and dad are good parents. They take turns sitting on the clutch, usually for about three weeks. After the chicks hatch, both parents feed them by regurgitating (throwing up) remains of their last meal.

Chicks leave the nest at four or five weeks. They usually remain nearby and are fed by their parents until at least eight weeks, at which time they've perfected the art of flying. Then the parents' job is done.

Birds of a Feather?

Spoonbills are very social birds. They spend most of their time in the company of other spoonbills, as well as other water birds. Not only do they feed in groups, but they nest in colonies with ibises, storks, cormorants, herons and egrets.

Roseate spoonbills fly in flocks with other spoonbills, usually in long, strung-out diagonal lines. Those that live in the tropics tend not to migrate. In temperate and sub-tropical climates, spoonbills migrate somewhat, mostly as a response to food availability and rainfall patterns.

A Dark History, a Rosier Future?

Roseate spoonbills are plentiful in much of their range, but that hasn't always been the case. In the mid- to late-1800s, they were driven to the brink of extinction in North America and Cuba. Spoonbills were intensely hunted for their beautiful feathers, used for ladies' hats, fans and screens. Their numbers also suffered with the draining and pollution of their wetland habitat.

By the early 20th century, there were only a few dozen nesting pairs of roseate spoonbills on this continent. Various groups, including the National Audubon Society, set aside preserves for the birds. Spoonbills received legal protection in the1940s and their numbers slowly started rebounding in parts of the southern U.S.

Today the species has recovered so well that it has no special conservation status. Yet scientists worry about a recent decline in the number of breeding pairs in various parts of its range. Manmade causes are again suspected, specifically the broad use of pesticides to control mosquitoes and changes in the birds' wetland habitats (draining, pollution, etc.). With any luck, the roseate spoonbill will be able to cope and will have a rosy future for many centuries to come.

Fun Facts

  • It's ironic that roseate spoonbills were hunted for their plumage: their feather color fades rapidly, so the fans and hats made from their plumes had only a limited lifespan.
  • A spoonbill's nostrils are located at top of the bill, making it possible for the bird to breathe while the bill is under water.
  • The roseate spoonbill gets much of its pink color from the food it eats. The crustaceans that it eats feed on algae which contain pigments that impart a pink/red color.

Class: Aves
Order: Ciconiiformes
Family: Threskiornithidae