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Spoonie Sighting!

Apr 11, 2011

That’s right we’ve had a spoonbill sighting at Duck Creek. Now if you’re a duck hunter, you might wonder why I am making a big fuss about a Northern Shoveler. We get those all the time. If you’re a fisherman, you might think I’m referring to a paddlefish, which would be kind of cool to find at the end of your line in Pool 1, extremely unlikely, but cool if it happened. Well, I’m not referring to either one of these species.

I’m talking about the large pink wading bird that is typically found along Gulf Coast wetlands or further south in Central or South America.  Well, that may not help either since you might think I'm referring to an American Flamingo. Think the other large pink wading bird ... you know the one that goes by other common names like "flame-bird," "pink chicken," and "banjo-bill."  Doesn't ring any bells?  How about the Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja)? Familiar with the bird or not, one was seen on Duck Creek this weekend.

Why is it here?

Occasionally, like other avian species, a Roseate Spoonbill will get blown off course and end up hanging out in locations that are a little out of their typical home range. This often occurs after a hurricane but can happen at other times too. If you were outside this weekend, you experienced the blustery 30+ mile per hour winds and can see how a bird may have found himself a little further north than expected.

Where was it?

On Sunday, Ryan Douglas and other birders spotted the "banjo-bill" in Unit A. Over the last few weeks I’ve mentioned other waterfowl, shorebirds and waterbirds have been using the shallow water habitat and mud flats within this pool. It seems like this southern traveler also got "wind" of the spring buffet at Duck Creek (I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself).

Why the strange bill?

Like the other “spoonies,” there is a specific function to their strange form. A Roseate Spoonbill uses its flattened beak to sift through the muddy water to find food. As it sweeps back and forth through the shallow water, small prey (bugs, snails, fish, etc.) are stirred up from the bottom and within the water column. As the bird continues to swing its head, sensitive receptors in the bill signal when to clamp down and capture its meal. Foraging by touch is a handy adaptation for murky or densely vegetated habitats, which is often the case in wetlands.

Are these birds common?

Like many brightly colored species, Roseate Spoonbills were almost hunted to extinction during the days of market hunting. Their feathers were used for women’s hats and fans. Since the 1940s these birds, along with other species, have been protected through regulations and have been making a comeback.

Importance of wetlands

However, during this time many states, including Missouri, have lost a considerable amount of the wetland habitats that these birds and others call their home. In Missouri, we only have 13 percent of the wetlands that were historically here. In the last 60 years agencies like MDC and USFWS and more recently programs like the Wetland Reserve Program have been managing and restoring wetland habitats. These areas provide habitat for a variety of wetland dependent species and have other societal benefits like water quality, flood relief and multiple kinds of recreational use. At Duck Creek, our bread and butter may be ducks and fish, but the Roseate Spoonbill is a pretty cool reminder that there are other species that also benefit from these wetlands, both locally and regionally.

Finally, I just wanted to say thanks to Al Smith and Chris Barrigar for their photos of our unique feathered visitor.


photo of spoonbill wading
Pink Chicken
The roseate spoonbill’s scientific name is Platalea ajaja. It has many common names, including flame-bird, pink chicken and banjo-bill.


photo of roseate spoonbill foraging
Roseate Spoonbill Foraging
Roseate spoonbills forage in shallowly flooded wetlands using their specialized bills to capture small prey.


photo of roseate spoonbill taking off
Roseate Spoonbill Coloring
The pink coloring in the roseate spoonbill’s feathers comes from the crustaceans (shrimp, crabs and crayfish) they eat.

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