It is beginning to look like Christmas in the Golden Isles. Grapevines look like golden garlands draped across the live oaks and pines. They twist themselves in and around the Red Virginia Creeper. Herons and egrets are sparkly, silvery white in the green grass. But we have a new kid in the marsh, and it adds another color to our holidays.
I am talking about the Roseate Spoonbill, and this bright pink bird is coming home to roost.
Roseate Spoonbills were common across the Southeast United States in the early 1800s. However, towards the end of the 19th century, spoonbills were victims of the Plume Hunters’ War. Ladies wore hats with long, fancy feathers in those days. To supply these long, fancy feathers, plume hunters went into nesting colonies of egrets, herons, and spoonbills. They slaughtered every single adult, taking the feathers but leaving the bodies behind in the trees. At the height of the plume trade, heron feathers were more valuable than gold. Sadly, the spoonbills’ pink feathers faded quickly after death; so they weren’t as valuable as the other waders. However, it was not easy to stop the lucrative feather trade. It took women refusing to buy the hats that helped stop the wholesale slaughter of these birds.
Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. This act protects all migratory birds from being killed for their feathers or eggs. The herons, egrets, and spoonbills began to come back. Sadly, spoonbills took longer to recover.
Some folks think our spoonbills are flamingos because of the two species similar coloring. Yet the birds have many differences. The American Flamingo is sometimes called the Caribbean Flamingo, for these bizarre birds are just found in in the West Indies with stragglers showing up in the Everglades. They are taller than spoonbills: The Roseate Spoonbill is around 33 inches tall, whereas the American Flamingo is 46 inches tall.
The two birds’ bills are also very different. The flamingo’s bill curves down with a hook back toward the neck. Spoonbills, on the other hand, get their name from their noticeable beak in the shape of a flat spoon.
The first Roseate Spoonbill I saw was in 1981. It was strolling along with its flat paddle-shaped bill just moving back and forth. “Pink bird in the marsh,” I exclaimed to my friend. “Spoonbill,” my friend replied and pulled the car off the road. We watched it for a while. I remember thinking, “Spoonbill, now the name makes sense.”
In the late 1980s, the spoonbills would only show up here on the Georgia coast in August. Through the next decade, more spoonbills appeared in wading birds’ roosts in the area. Finally, in the 2000s, biologists were tagging the spoonbills, and we found many with bright red bands on their legs. It turns out our spoonbills were coming from the Tampa Bay area of Florida. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources discovered the first nest of spoonbills near Crooked River State Park in Camden County in 2011. The numbers of spoonbills grew, and three years ago, Roseate Spoonbills nested at Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge in Townsend.
Today, Roseate Spoonbills stay here through the winter. They are coming home to roost for Christmas — and providing a beautiful, colorful addition to our wintertime marshes.