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Avian Ogres

Yes, the roseate spoonbill has a spoon-shaped bill. That's not the only thing that sets it apart.

By: Rick Burkman
Updated September 05, 2019

"One of the most breathtaking of the world’s weirdest birds.”

That’s how the late Roger Tory Peterson, ornithologist, world traveler, and inventor of the modern birding field guide, described the roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja).

Peterson was right. Like vultures, condors, and storks, spoonbills have completely bald heads. Unlike those other birds, the spoonbill’s head is covered with wrinkled, dinosaur-like green skin that surrounds vivid ruby-red eyes. A black neck collar wraps around green ear pits and a gray-green bill shaped like an old wooden cooking spoon juts out from the face. It looks like a baby bird’s nightmare—an avian ogre brought to life.

But the head is not the first thing to catch the eye with this bird—it’s the pink. Large, bright pink wing feathers with a yellow patch at each base are capped with crimson coverts. Pink feathers on the belly change to white on the neck, back, and breast, and red tail coverts lead to tawny-orange tail feathers. A pair of carmen red legs round out a spectacle that is difficult to capture in photos or paintings.

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