Iconic Spoonbills Struggle To Survive In Florida Bay

Feb 15, 2016

  Roseate spoonbills may not appear in plastic as lawn ornaments — but they are up there with flamingos as one of Florida's iconic birds. They're the other pink birds.

Jerry Lorenz is the research director of Audubon Florida. He has been studying the roseate spoonbill population for 26 years.
Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN

  Scientists from the National Audubon Society and Audubon Florida have been studying the spoonbill population of Florida Bay since 1939. First it was to determine whether the birds could come back from plume hunting in the late 19th century.

Eventually the birds did make a comeback. But they've struggled in recent decades coping with the consequences of water management, which can alter the natural cycle of Florida Bay. Spoonbills rely on fish being concentrated into small pools during the dry season.

Jerry Lorenz is the research director for Audubon Florida and works out of the Everglades Science Center in Tavernier. He's been studying the spoonbill population for 26 years and recently talked to WLRN's Nancy Klingener about the birds.

Read an edited version of our interview below:

Can you describe spoonbills for us?

The best way I've ever heard it put is that a roseate spoonbill is like an orchid that has taken to wing. They are a stunning pink color with accents of yellow. They have a long bill that a lot of people would consider ugly — I think they're beautiful. Bright red eyes. Their heads can be anywhere from blue to green to yellow.

Roseate spoonbills in Florida Bay.
Credit Mac Stone Photography

How do they survive?

Well, they're very specialized foragers. They eat fish. They'll take anything; they'll eat snails, they'll eat shrimp. But that bill, that is a fish-hunting machine. How they get their food is very unique. I call it like their little vacuum cleaner. What they do is they put this spatulate bill — most birds have a pointy bill; this is much wider at the end — it's very sensitive like your lips would be. And they drag their bill through the water. They kind of walk forward and they just shake it back and forth while it's in the water and then when they hit something to eat, it's a reflex action. The bill automatically snaps shut and they swallow it.

How are they doing this year?

This year they're not doing so well. There have been many things that have gone wrong in recent years. One of the biggest of them is the continued effect of sea level rise in the Keys. With higher water levels in the southern Everglades, you don't get those concentrations of fish. The water, because it's coming in from the ocean instead of the Everglades, you have higher water levels for longer periods of time. That's great for those little fish,  but it doesn't concentrate them into the pools and ponds. And therefore the spoonbills, when they try to raise their young, they can't get enough food to raise their young and the end result is the young die in the nest.

What perspective have you gained over 26 years of studying spoonbills in Florida Bay?

It's given me a perspective that nature is really, really resilient,  and if we just let it heal it will do very well. We do get two, three, four years, consecutive years, where we have the right conditions. And when you see that happen, you see these birds respond. They start raising young, and they're raising healthy, big, multiple young in a nest. So instead of getting just one fledgling bird out of every three or four nests we start getting six, seven, eight birds out of two or three nests. And so that's the positive I take back is that, overall, this is a very sad story,  but collectively we have not nailed the coffin shut on any of these environments. They are still just incredibly resilient.

See roseate spoonbills on Florida Bay in this video from Audubon Florida: