Written by Micah Carnate-Peralta, Animal Care Professional
During the first few months of 2018, we traveled to various locations around the globe learning about different avian species to celebrate the Year of the Bird, as well as highlighting the numerous victories that were achieved by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). For the month of May, we will traverse to our own backyards, the Florida wetlands, to explore and behold the beauty of the Roseate Spoonbill!
Named after their bright pink plumage and oddly unique bill structure, Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) live a simple coastal and shallow-water life. You will find these birds in their natural range - around the Gulf of Mexico, several Caribbean Islands, and parts of South America when they migrate during winter to breed. Many people often mistake these rose-colored birds for flamingoes due to their similar colors; however, if you take the time to look closer, there are significant differences between the two species. For comparison, Roseates average around 3 feet in length with a 4-foot wingspan and do not have long necks or legs like flamingoes, but the one outstanding difference that sets the roseate apart from everyone is their bill shape! As the most notable part of their body, their bill is long with a rounded spoon-like end. It is specialized in the fact that the spoon part of their bill possesses nerve endings that aid in the search for food in shallow murky waters. While foraging for small crustaceans and fish, the roseate will wade in the water with its spoonbill submerged swaying its head from side to side. When something bumps into their spoonbill, those sensitive nerve endings will alert the bird that there is food and it will then consume its prey. By eating their favorite foods, such as shrimp, crabs, and crayfish, the spoonbill will be filled with an organic pigment called carotenoids, which will then give their feathers a lovely rose pink color!
Although their feathers are beautiful to see, the past was not so beautiful for the Roseate Spoonbills.
Long ago, Roseates were plentiful along the gulf coast of the United States, stretching from Texas to southern Florida. However, in the late nineteenth century, fashion highly demanded for Roseate Spoonbill feathers, which were used for decorating the tops of women’s hats and fans. The upsurge in hunting for these rosy feathers caused the spoonbill’s population to severely decline, hitting an ultimate low in the 1930s with only about thirty breeding pairs while constricting their breeding grounds to small islands in Florida Bay. With the help of the MBTA in 1918, Roseates were protected from any further hunting, allowing for the population to recover. Furthermore, the state of Florida provided additional protection for these birds through Florida’s Endangered and Threatened Species Rule of 1977 declaring that we must “conserve or improve the status of endangered and threatened species in Florida to effectively reduce the risk of extinction.” Through the perseverance, dedication, and support of these two laws, the spoonbill population’s status rose from Endangered to its current standing of Least Concerned according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and deemed Threatened by the state of Florida. Even though their story is currently progressing in a positive direction, Roseate Spoonbills still endure continuing threats that they must fight through to survive. Such threats include habitat loss and disturbance due to human encroachment, pesticides that collect in their waters and food, and illegal hunting. Combating these threats may appear to be a daunting task for the Roseate Spoonbills, but they will always find support from their friends at ZooTampa!
Here at ZooTampa, the Aviary Department is dedicated to the conservation of our native birds, especially the Roseate Spoonbills. Through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Roseates are designated as a Species Survival Plan (SSP) species, a plan which ensures that the current Roseate Spoonbill population in zoos and aquariums will be genetically viable and sustainable for long-term survivability through carefully managed breeding of the birds and cooperation between participating institutions. Under our care, we have our own colony consisting of seven Roseate Spoonbills and you can find them in our Florida Aviary, located in the Florida Realm of the Zoo! You may even see them building and sitting on nests! Since they are native to Florida and if you enjoy birding or bird watching, you may also spot them in the trees of surrounding areas of Tampa Bay like Fort De Soto Park, Lettuce Lake Park, and Circle B Bar Reserve.
How can you help birds like the Roseate Spoonbills that call Florida home?
- Reduce single-use plastics to save birds and other wildlife from ingesting the trash that pollutes our planet.
- Visit our lovely Roseate Spoonbills and check out their pretty feathers and unique bills for yourself!
By visiting the Zoo, you are one step closer to helping the Roseate Spoonbills, as well as our mission for the conservation of these species and other animals around the world!