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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.

Even though they have ogre-like heads, spoonbills are gentle souls. They like company and feed peacefully alongside egrets, wood storks, ibises, and plenty of other spoonbills. Individuals in the group don’t interact very much, but one thing will capture a group’s interest. When another spoonbill flies overhead, the feeding birds point their bills to the sky and, like a crowd of spectators at an airshow, watch the bird as it flies by. It is an odd, almost eerie, and still-mysterious behavior unique to roseate spoonbills.

Their enjoyment of company caused trouble for these birds during the market-hunting years of the late nineteenth century. The millinery trade demanded more and more bright-white egret plumes to decorate the ever-gaudier hats in vogue at the time, and nesting colonies were the place to find them. At the height of the fashion craze, an ounce of plumes was worth more than an ounce of gold, so finding so many birds in one spot was like discovering a treasure chest. Entire colonies of wading birds were wiped out for fashion—the odd bills were just an added bonus.

Today the birds are protected, their numbers are stable, and colonies are still where all the important stuff happens. Like all birds, spoonbills have an innate drive to nest and raise young. Males start by sneaking away from the flock to search for nest sites deep in a grove of trees. They prefer mangroves but other sites will do as long as they are dense and large. Testosterone is running high, and the male is a little edgy for a few days once he claims a territory. He chases away both males and females as he settles into his new real estate, but his aggression doesn’t last long. Nest sites aren’t any good without a partner.

Now he needs to convince one of the hens he chased away to come back and start a family. He fluffs his feathers, bobs his reptilian head up and down, and grabs and shakes branches to attract attention. When a hen appears interested enough, he presents her with a stick. Nesting season is on. For the next few weeks he will keep bringing his mate sticks at a leisurely pace, and she will weave them into a bulky nest.

As the nest gets taller the twigs get smaller. Finally, the birds place a softer layer of grasses and leaves on top of the platform and they test it out, fidgeting and wiggling to form a nest cup. Even when nesting, spoonbills like company. Males stop defending territories and new nests spring up within reaching distance of each other. Other wading birds join the colony and soon it has the look of an avian apartment building. Comfortable in her neighborhood, the hen lays a dull white, splotchy egg every day for three or four days.

Nesting colonies are busy places where nests get jostled and predators hope for an easy meal, so the eggs are never left alone. Even in a busy neighborhood, sitting on a nest for hours must get boring, and turning eggs and preening can’t fill the hours of monotonous brooding. To pass the time, a spoonbills starts to play by grabbling a stick, tossing it into the air, and repeating. One will grab a stick, toss it into the air, catch it, and repeat. Stick tossing won’t scare away nest robbers like racoons, grackles, and fire ants, and it doesn’t bring more food to the nestlings. In fact, it doesn’t seem to do anything at all except occupy the birds, like a human drumming fingers on a desktop or mindlessly bouncing a ball against a wall over and over again.

Nesting starts out slowly but after 21 days life accelerates. Each chick jams its egg tooth against the inside of the shell to begin the exhausting process of busting out. Comically rounded, yellow, leathery bills push and prod one side of the egg while long legs and toes push the other side. Once free, the pink-skinned chicks lay at the bottom of the nest, helpless and barely able to move.

The newborns are as odd looking as their parents. Their eyes are too big for their heads, so they poke out of the skull like gray grapes with black-daubed pupils. Deep pink skin shows through the dingy white down, and huge ear cavities pit each side of the head. But the strangest part might be the bill. It’s not spoon-shaped yet. That won’t happen for another couple of months. Instead, the lower mandible is a little wider than the upper and the edges wrap slightly upward to form a rough, yellow drinking tube with just the right shape for slurping a soupy mix of semi-digested, stomach-cooked fish from a parent’s gullet.

One of the parents stays with the chicks for the first month while the other flies up to 40 miles away to find a good feeding ground. The adults become fishing machines, stepping deliberately through the water and sweeping their slightly-opened bills back and forth in front of them. Sensitive nerve endings in their mouths allow them to fish almost entirely by feel. The moment a bird touches a fish, the paddle-like bill snaps shut and traps the prey. The system is so efficient that a spoonbill can catch and swallow a fish every three seconds.

By the time a chick has a fully flattened bill, it has left the nest and is approaching full size, about 26 times heavier than it was on hatching day. The head has grown to fit the eyes, the bill has flattened into the distinctive spoon shape, and the down has been covered with a brand-new coat of dingy white feathers.

Family ties dissolve as the new generation builds its wing muscles. Juveniles develop wanderlust that grows stronger with each passing day. They take longer and longer flights until one day they are just gone. It will be another three years before they trade their dingy white feathers for the bald head and stunning garb of breeding adults, and then the most beautiful ogres in the world start life all over again.

Measurements in mm

Female:
Wing length:
335
Culmen: 156
Bill width (at spoon): 49
Tarsus: 104
Tail: 94

Male:
Wing length: 351
Culmen: 168
Bill width (at spoon): 54
Tarsus: 114
Tail: 98
 

Additional Images

  1. The roseate spoonbill has more than a little dinosaur about it. A pink dinosaur, that is. The bill may look odd but it serves a vital purpose—snapping shut on the fish on which the birds feed.

  2. The roseate spoonbill’s vivid red eyes, bit of green skin, and bright pink feathers add up to a colorful bird. The feather color also provides the name: “roseate” means “rose-colored.”

  3. After the crankiness on display when the birds pick their nesting sites, spoonbills become more sociable creatures and coexist peacefully in large avian neighborhoods.

  4. A spoonbill shows off its wing structure as it comes in for a landing.

  5. The bill that gives the spoonbill its name is surprisingly slender when seen from the side.

  6. The birds use sticks to build their nests. They will also toss and catch sticks, apparently as a way to pass the time while nesting.

  7. Spoonbills are fairly large, with wingspans that can extend more than four feet.

  8. A truly distinctive species, the roseate spoonbill makes an interesting carving project.

Pattern

  1. Roseate Spoonbill (30% Life-size)
    By Jean Minaudier © 2019

  2. HEAD
    Tint the front half of the face with washes of yellow oxide, while the back half gets washes of Hooker’s green mixed with burnt umber. Wrinkles, ear detail, and other dark markings are a dark mix of ultramarine blue and burnt umber. Use this mix as a very thin wash to darken the head slightly, toning down the yellow and greenish areas.

    BILL
    Use washes of ultramarine blue mixed with burnt umber. The edges of the bill get thin white highlights.

    BODY
    Base coat with white gesso. The pink tint is a mix of white, cadmium red medium, and quinacridone violet washed in thin layers. The darker pinks on the wing coverts and neck get streaks of cadmium red medium mixed with quinacridone violet. Add some white to the mix to detail feather edges and splits. Use white to create some highlights, and also as a wash to tone down any pink areas that need softening. Apply yellow oxide to the sides of the neck as a very thin wash, and also sparingly to the wings and tail to add some warm highlights.

    LEGS
    Apply a couple washes of a mix of quinacridone violet and burnt umber over the entire leg. Then add black to the mixture and apply another wash or two. Use this mix to darken the feet and add scale detail.

About the Author

  1. Regular contributor Rick Burkman started watching birds at a young age 50 years ago. Many years later he began a professional writing career and has written for bird magazines, regional magazines, and newspapers. He currently serves on the planning team and communications committee for the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II, and conducts regular field surveys for breeding birds.

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