Wild Thing: Tickled Pink
Magenta plumage makes the roseate spoonbill Texas' prettiest crustacean cruncher.
By Eva Frederick
When the roseate spoonbill, Texas’ pinkest water bird, forages for food, it uses its bill like a pair of tongs grabbing hot dogs off a grill. Pacing and foraging the muddy shallow-water shores, it moves a slightly open bill back and forth, feeling for prey with special touch receptors on the paddle-shaped end. Once it encounters an unlucky fish, crab or shrimp, the roseate spoonbill snaps it up.
Birders travel far to see this coral-colored creature, which nests in the spring and summer on the Gulf shores, forest wetlands and swamps of Texas, Mexico and several southern states.
Like the flamingo, the spoonbill’s pink prey — mostly crabs and shrimp — are responsible for the namesake shade of magenta. These pink, orange or red marine organisms get their color in turn from the algae they eat, full of pigments called carotenoids.
One famous carotenoid is beta-carotene, a fat-soluble pigment found in carrots, sweet potatoes and spinach. Your palm might turn orange temporarily if you eat way too many carrots because fat-soluble beta-carotene is retained in fat deposits in skin and feathers. This means that spoonbills, which begin their lives with white plumage tinged with pink, slowly become pinker as they eat more carotenoid-containing creatures.
Hats or fans adorned with roseate spoonbill feathers were fashionable in the 1800s — so fashionable, in fact, that the spoonbill was nearly hunted to extinction. In the early 1900s, conservation organizations like Audubon stepped in, and the species has recovered so well that it is a common sight on the Texas coast. Turns out the joke’s on those fashionistas — spoonbill feathers quickly lose their vibrant pink color and fade to a much lighter shade.
Adult spoonbills are pale pink all over with darker pink patches on their wings. Their heads are yellowish-green, and their eyes glow a luminescent red. Spoonbills are grown and ready to breed at 2–3 years old.
Male spoonbills — true romantics — court females by bringing them gifts, usually nest-building materials. Once the female picks a mate, the two birds will work together to build a nest in shrubs or trees by the water’s edge; mangrove trees are a popular choice. The female will lay two to four eggs; both parents take turns incubating and feeding the chicks until they are ready to leave the nest at 7 or 8 weeks old.
Spoonbills are social birds, living in colonies with other species of water birds such as ibises and egrets. In October, they migrate to the warmer waters of Central and South America, returning in March. A single roseate spoonbill might make this trip many times, because the birds can live up to 10 years.
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