For the Birds Radio Program: Roseate Spoonbill

Original Air Date: March 7, 1997 Rerun Dates: April 22, 1998

This one’s the funkiest bird on the planet. I had to use a recording of its close relative, the White-faced Ibis. 3:48

Audio missing


One of the bizarrely beautiful sights in the world, a sight that even the most jaded non-birder would appreciate, is a flock of Roseate Spoonbills. They’re enormous enough that you can’t miss them, even without binoculars, and pink enough to stand out in any landscape or against the dullest leaden sky. Young spoonbills are mostly white, and their first summer tum a delicate shade of pink. With age the color deepens and becomes richer, and individual shoulder feathers tum almost blood red. With age the legs also change from grayish yellow to bold red. To top it off, whatever fashion consultant out of the psychedelic 60s designed them painted the base of their necks sunset orange. The effect would be exotically yet simply beautiful except for one thing–their heads. Spoonbills have a bald, green, reptilian head out of which sprouts the spatulate beak that gives them their name. That grotesque head complicates without diminishing their beauty. Just a glimpse at one of these Gulf Coast birds would give anyone a strong suspicion that we’re not in Minnesota or Wisconsin any more.

This year on my Texas trip I had some of the most wonderful and satisfying looks at spoonbills in my life. I saw them flying overhead in Rockport, feeding in the marshes at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, and, most memorably, resting and feeding at Hans Suter Park in Corpus Christi. If you ever have to go to Corpus Christi, on business or pleasure, try to visit this extraordinary park, where a boardwalk takes you right through a lovely coastal marsh. This boardwalk is so heavily used by people that the birds have become accustomed to human presence, and completely ignored us, even at amazingly close range.

When sleeping or napping, spoonbills rest their beaks on their backs, tucked beneath back and shoulder feathers. When we arrived, a group of seven or so was taking a snooze in the marsh grasses at the edge of a channel of water, but then one magnificent older adult woke up. He delicately dipped his enormous bill in the open water and started quickly and deftly nibbling at tiny plants or creatures in the water. There were lots of ducks swimming in the channel, and one pintail happened to be exactly where the spoonbill was feeding. So the spoonbill bit the pintail’s tail. This pintail was in splendid breeding plumage, it’s carriage and feathers a study in elegance and dignity, until the tail-tweeking. The duck turned to face the teasing spoonbill, but something in the spoonbill’s face apparently told the duck they spoke different languages, so the pintail turned tail and started to swim away, and again and again the spoonbill tweaked his tail, almost as if herding the lithe creature out of the channel. My mind’s eye will long be pulling that scene from memory–and making me laugh at the sight of that big reptilian bird tweaking that delicate sprig of the pintail’s.

Even when they’re not amusing, a planet with Roseate Spoonbills holds far more hope than a planet without. As Terry Tempest Williams wrote, “How can hope be denied when there is always the possibility of an American flamingo or a roseate spoonbill floating down from the sky like pink rose petals?”