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Collier County

ROSEATE SPOONBILL (Ajaia ajaja)

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Roseate spoonbill picture
Family: Threskiornithidae

Order: Ciconiiformes

STATUS: Species of Special Concern

DESCRIPTION: The roseate spoonbill, the only large pink, bird common to peninsular Florida, stands about 80 centimeters high. This long-legged wading bird possesses a unique long, flat, spatulate bill. Adult spoonbills, approximately 3 years or older, are bright pink, with red wing coverts, red upper tail coverts, a buff or rusty brown tail, and have bare heads. Newly fledged juveniles are uniformly pale pink, almost white, with feathered heads, and have dusky tipped outer primaries.

HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION: Spoonbills are primarily found in coastal regions characterized by shallow estuarine bays, brackish ponds, and mangrove swamps. In Florida, the largest concentration of spoonbills are found in the Ten Thousand Island region, in Florida Bay, and in the Keys. Spoonbills occur as far north as coastal Texas, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Their southern range includes Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. The roseate spoonbill is the only species of spoonbill found in the Western Hemisphere. The present population of spoonbills in Florida is probably less than one-third of the level recorded at the turn of the century. The bulk of Florida's population occurs in Florida Bay, and numbers less than 2,500.

Two migrations of spoonbills have been observed in Florida, a fall flight of adults from the south into the state to breed, with these birds returning south in the spring, and a spring flight of subadults from the south, these birds returning south in the fall. This flight of subadults is presumably the source of many of the spoonbills seen along the coasts during summer.

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Spoonbills are of special interest because of the specialized feeding technique associated with the spatulate bill. Spoonbills feed wherever concentrations of small fish or prawns occur at the edges of coastal bays, in brackish ponds, in pools and sloughs through mangrove swamps, and less frequently in freshwater marshes.

Spoonbills nest and roost in dense mangrove islands adjacent to productive shallow bay waters. Usually these shallows exhibit a minimum tidal range, which guarantees food availability at most times of the day. Nesting is colonial and often in close association with ibises and herons, probably due to the distribution of perhaps their most important natural predator, the raccoon. Spoonbills nest only once each year during the months of January through June. Both sexes share in the incubation of the eggs, which usually number 2 or 3. Incubation lasts 21 to 24 days. Newly fledged juveniles at first feed primarily in shallow water near nest sites, but by spring, adults, subadults, and juveniles scatter widely on the mainland, including the freshwater marshes. Spoonbills begin breeding about 3 years of age.

BASIS OF STATUS CLASSIFICATION: In Florida, spoonbills formerly (19th century) bred as far north as Tampa Bay on the Gulf Coast, Brevard County on the east coast, and Lake Okeechobee in the interior. The numbers of spoonbills and their nesting sites were severely reduced by the plume hunters of the 1880s, and continued to decline through the early 20th century to an all-time low of only 3 small colonies, which produced a total of 20 to 25 nests. Laws in Louisiana and Texas, which not only protected the spoonbill, but also designated sanctuaries for the species, were followed by a modest recovery of the population in those states. The roseate spoonbill is has been classified as a "species of special concern" by the state since 1979. However, the spoonbill remains in a precarious position in Florida. Human encroachment and land development, which destroy feeding and breeding areas, continue to threaten the species future.

HABITAT GUIGELINES: Protection of this species consists of providing an effective zone that buffers the nesting sites. This "buffer zone" may extend into upland habitat. The extent of these buffers is based on existing State and/or Federal guidelines, or reflect the recommendations of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

Any activity proposed within a buffer zone would be subject to review. Activities that could be allowed in the buffer zone would be those activities which would not have any long term detrimental impact on the nesting birds. The following would be considered when making this determination: (1) the type of activity or construction planned and its' long term impacts; (2) the nature of the natural community that makes up the buffer zone (does it provide a visual barrier for any proposed nesting activities?); and (3) the timing of the proposed construction (does it occur outside the nesting season?).

RECOMMENDATIONS: The roseate spoonbill is protected by law, as are many of its nesting and feeding sites. Under this protection, the spoonbill has been slowly increasing in numbers. However, additional state and federal acquisitions of spoonbill habitat are needed. The reintroduction of spoonbills into areas where they once were common may, upon further research, prove to be a valuable management tool.

REFERENCES:
Robertson, W.B., Jr. 1978. Roseate spoonbill. Pp. 52-53. In H.W. Kale, II, (ed.), Rare and Endangered Biota of Florida. Birds. University Presses of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

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