ROSEATE SPOONBILL (Ajaja ajaja)
|Image modified from wikipedia|
Original image by Jgocfoto
Here we have one of those animals where the name doesn't really tell you what it is. Nowhere in the name is it apparent that this thing is a bird. The scientific name is also not helpful because it just looks like a Spanish-speaking person laughing.
Roseate spoonbills are big, pink stork-shaped birds - that's right, they are discount flamingos. Normally, this would bother me. If somebody told me a flock of flamingos were headed my way and then a bunch of spoonbills showed up, I might be disappointed. However, I strongly appreciate that there is more than one species of big, pink bird in the world so I'm not counting this against them. I think it's fun, and I think they're pretty. Roseate spoonbills have some white and yellow feathers on them too, which offsets the pink and makes them fun in a different way from flamingos.
Also, very importantly, their bills are shaped like spoons. So many animals have misleading or even blatantly untrue names, but the roseate spoonbill actually makes sense.
Despite being pretty and, dare I say it, elegant birds, spoonbills make some really ugly noises. Their vocalizations sound sort of halfway between a regular bird and a pig. And from what I've gleaned watching youtube videos, they're the kind of bird that just makes noise constantly. Always grunting while they're hunting.
Speaking of hunting, they are fairly sophisticated predators, harnessing the dynamic action of the whirlpool. They stick their beaks in the water and swirl them around, creating little vortexes that suck up small invertebrates. Whenever anything touches their super sensitive beaks, they snap it up. Which honestly is quite clever.
For some reason, roseate spoonbills are strongly associated with Florida. This is both unfortunate and inaccurate - they live all over the southern, coastal states, as well as other countries that are not the US (yes, they exist!), such as Panama, Argentina, and Barbados. Unlike some birds, roseate spoonbills are just too fucking cool to migrate, so we don't see them up here in the frozen wastes of Ontario.
They live in swamps, specifically in areas with brackish water. This possibly explains their connection to Florida, a land renowned for its swamps, and also means they pretty much only occur near coastlines. It also raises some problems, which I will discuss later. Anyway, swamps are cool and it's my goal to one day live in one, so I'm down with the swamp birds.
When I said earlier than roseate spoonbills are budget flamingos, part of that was me being hyperbolic and rude, but part of it was coming from a place of truth. They do get their pretty pink plumage the same way that flamingos do. Believe it or not, neither of these birds are pink on their own power. Their colour comes from their diet. Spoonbills (and flamingos) eat little crustaceans and other hard-bodied things that live in the swamp mud. The disgusting little swamp bugs eat algae rich in pigmented proteins called carotenoids (and others) and these proteins get passed up the food chain. If spoonbills were to eat something else, their feathers would be white - in fact, there are records of spoonbills kept in zoos losing their colouration after being fed the wrong diet.
Okay, so I've told you what makes them roseate - now what makes them spoonbill? Bird beak evolution is a hefty topic to say the least, and there is a lot of published work about it, but basically this is what went down:
Birds used to have snouts with teeth, sort of like crocodiles. Snouts with pointy teeth are really only good at catching fairly large animal prey, which doesn't allow much variation in diet (this is why you don't see herbivorous crocodiles). Beaks are lighter than having big bone snouts, which makes flying more feasible; and they take less time to develop, which minimizes the length of time baby birds spend in the egg.
For these reasons, beaks worked really well for birds, and nowadays all birds have em. Bird beaks are also quite evolutionarily flexible - that is to say, it was apparently easy for them to change over long periods of time to fit pretty much any given diet. So you end up with birds that have highly specialized beaks, like the spoonbill of the roseate spoonbill, which is perfect for snacking on small aquatic critters.
Points: 1/1 i guess because this section has to have a point somewhere
A lot of animals don't really give a shit about their kids. They just go ahead and produce as many eggs as possible, spraying them unceremoniously into the environment and walking (or usually swimming) away. Not roseate spoonbills, though. They have small clutches of eggs, and both parents take care of the nests. Not only is this just straight up nice to think about, it's also a solid way to make sure that your genetic material... y'know, persists in the world for a long time. That said, it's a lot of work relative to having five hundred kids, giving zero fucks, and just hoping for the best. So you gotta take the good with the bad, I guess.
Interaction with Humans
Roseate spoonbills were almost hunted to extinction in the late 1800s. Why, you ask? Are they really good eatin? I don't actually know the answer to this - they don't look like they would taste good, and they live in swamps and eat mud bugs, but then ducks are tasty so maybe. That's not the reason they almost went extinct though. What, then? Are they a pest of some sort? Again, they live in the swamp so no, they don't go around raiding crops or attacking people.
Gentle reader, the very smart and sensible reason why these beautiful birds came close to being totally annihilated from the planet is this: their feathers look really cool in hats. That's right, all the fancy white people liked to have plumes in their bonnets, as was the style at the time, and millions and millions of wild birds of various species were killed for their feathers.
On the plus side, people at the time got really upset about the decline in bird populations, and the US government... actually... did something about it? What a time to be alive that must have been. Anyway, the roseate spoonbill is, in fact, a happy story - their populations have since recovered and they're currently listed as least concern by IUCN. But justice will not truly be served until birds are allowed to make hats out of people.
Final Score: 6.5/7
Roseate spoonbills are almost - almost - the perfect animal
- Birdlife International. 2016. Platalea ajaja. The IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species 2016.
- Ratcliffe HL. 1936. Diet and the colour of birds. Nature
- Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
- Yang T, Martin PM. 2018. The origin of the bird's beak: new insights from dinosaur incubation periods. Biology Letters. 14(5). Open Access
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