June 28, 2022

Last week the front page of my local newspaper carried a USA Today article concerning how the warmer climate was affecting the Roseate spoonbill population.  It began with a sighing of a flock of birds in the southwestern corner of Arkansas.  Photographer Jami Linder had photographed the big, pink birds living in a remote swamp on land near the Mississippi River.  The birds were known to live along the marshy coast lines, but the coast was over 200 miles to the south.  Spoonbill expert Jerry Lorenz, state director of research for Audubon Florida, attributes this remarkable expansion of the birds’ range to three things: they are recovering after being nearly wiped out more than a century ago; they are being pushed out of their shallow coastal water habitats by rising sea levels; and they are finding warmer temperatures to the north.  One of the photos taken by Linder proved to be groundbreaking as it was the first evidence of a roseate nest in Arkansas.  She continued to take phots and not only captured the roseate chicks, but also documented the first Arkansas nest of a white-faced ibis, another wading bird on the move.

When I looked online, I found the roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) is a social wading bird of the ibis and spoonbill family, Threskiornithidae, who breeds in both South and North America.  The roseate spoonbill is 28–34 inches (71–86 cm) long, with a 47–52 inch (120–133 cm) wingspan, and a body mass of 2.6–4.0 pounds (1.2–1.8 kg).  The legs, bill, neck and spatulate bill all appear elongated.  Adults have a bare greenish head and a white neck, back, and breast and are otherwise a deep pink.  The adults’ heads turn “golden buff” and a tuft of pink feathers occur in the center of the breast when breeding.  Their pink color is diet-derived and is caused by two carotenoid pigments (canthaxanthin and astaxanthin).  The colors can range from pale pink to bright magenta, depending on age, whether breeding or not, and location.  Unlike herons, spoonbills fly with their necks outstretched.  The species feeds in shallow fresh or coastal waters by swinging its bill from side to side as it steadily walks through the water, feeding on the aquatic insects, crustaceans, frogs, newts, and very small fish.

The roseate spoonbill is yet another example that climate change is now and is not just coming.  While the roseate spoonbill’s habitat is vulnerable to even a moderate amount of sea level rise, the species has the advantage of mobility to move away from habitat destroyed by changing climate.  A large amount of the mangrove habitat predicted to be inundated by rising sea levels is expected to expand to new areas within the state, potentially creating areas of new habitat for the birds, but human land use patterns may conflict with natural mangrove expansion.  Between 25-50% of the roseate spoonbill’s range is expected to be impacted by a 15-32 inch (0.41 – 0.82 m) sea level rise, causing substantial loss to current sites.  New habitat may be created as marshes and large islands are fragmented.  Saltwater intrusion, management practices that affect the hydrologic regime, and tropical storm activity could change salinity levels in foraging sites and the roseate could suffer a decrease in nesting success due to less efficient foraging.  The species is highly mobile and can possibly move from the threats, but whether the new sites will serve in the long-term is yet to be seen.

THOUGHTS:  The roseate spoonbill was nearly hunted to extinction a 100 years ago to provide the colorful feathers for women’s hats, but the species has made a comeback.  Thirty years ago, 90% of Florida’s roseate nested in Florida Bay, but today it is less than 10% and continues to fall.  Pollution and rising sea levels forced the roseate to move but higher temperatures have allowed them to move north.  Lorenz said, “We’ve destroyed our coastal habitats and these birds have to go someplace else, but it also shows that these birds are resilient—Unlike us humans.  It’s good because spoonbills can adapt, but it’s not so good for us who live on the coast.”  Since the diet will change, will the distinctive plumage tied to diet also change?  Will it still be called roseate?  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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