Graceful, odd-looking and splendidly pink, the Roseate Spoonbill (Ajaia ajaja) has long captured the hearts of avid birders, casual observers and more recently, Florida Bay researchers. Members of the Ibis family, Spoonbills have been admired for centuries. They have even been immortalized on the interior walls of the Egyptian pyramids, their stylized countenance a reminder that humans have held similar perceptions of beauty throughout the millennia.
Unfortunately this species was very nearly annihilated by the whim of 19th century fashion. Grand hats and fancy fans were decorated with the plumes of birds from places near and far. Hunting of spoonbills and other birds continued until 1910, when the New York State Legislature passed the "Audubon Plumage Bill," greatly reducing the demand for feathers. Less than 100 nesting pairs of spoonbills remained in the United States at that time. For a bird that flourished all along the Gulf coast from Texas to the Florida Keys, the outlook was grim. A 1930 survey revealed that only 500 nesting pairs remained, prompting the National Audubon Society to take a closer look at the reasons why roseate spoon bills were not making much of a come back. Enter onto the scene ornithologist Robert Porter Allen who in 1935 was hired by Audubon to study these special creatures. It is said that Allen "lived like a spoonbill" during his months researching their habits, and from his thorough study a platform of baseline data was established that assists contemporary research.
Today the value of the Roseate Spoonbill is much more than skin deep. Their highly specialized fishing techniques and nesting preferences require a specific habitat the ideal habitat being found in Florida Bay. The dense, mangrove-lined marshland of the bay offers large numbers of small fish, crabs, crayfish, shrimp, aquatic insects and even mollusks on which to dine, with small minnow-type fish being their primary food source. The edges of their distinctive spoon-shaped bills are equipped with tactile receptors so sensitive that the spoonbill relies only on touch when foraging, reserving its bright, ruby red eyes for attracting a mate and finding nesting materials. As a group, the birds slowly dip their spoon bills into the shallow waters and underlying mud. As soon as their sensitive bills detect the touch of their prey, they immediately snap shut. Not only do they forage together, these social birds often nest in large colonies consisting of over 100 pairs of birds. They prefer to roost on small, dense offshore islands, which help prevent other animals, especially racoons, from raiding their nests. This is another reason why Florida Bay is the perfect habitat for spoonbills. Over 90% of spoonbill nesting takes place in Florida Bay!
The Roseate Spoonbill is listed by the State of Florida as a "Species of Special Concern." Florida Bay researchers are keeping a close watch on them since their health can tell us a great deal about our impact on this special environment. The most recent nest survey completed in 1999 showed the lowest number of nests since 1967. Needless to say, major changes have occurred in the bay over the past 30 years. Water management practices have impacted the spoonbills smorgasbord in many areas, and coastal development, complete with dredging and filling, has effectively destroyed much of the prime-nesting habitat. Audubon scientist Dr. Jerry Lorenz and other researchers have shown that roseate spoonbills clearly respond to water management and thus may serve as a good indicator species for south Florida ecosystem restoration. As Dr. Lorenz states: "Roseate spoonbills are the pink canary in the coal-mine."
For more information on this research, contact the Florida Bay Education Project at 305-852-3592. Additional information on a variety of topics is available from the University of Florida/Monroe County Cooperative Extension Service, 5100 College Road, Stock Island or call at 292-4501; fax: 292-4415; email: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our web site http://monroe.ifas.ufl.edu. Our services are free and available to all without regard to race, color, sex, or national origin.