Roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja)

GenusPlatalea (1)
SizeHeight: 80 cm (2)
Wingspan: 120 cm (2)
Top facts

The roseate spoonbill is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) is a striking wading bird that is easily identifiable thanks to its bright pink plumage and spoon-shaped bill (3) (4). It is a large bird, with a wingspan of over a metre, but is mid-sized in comparison to other species in the order Ciconiiformes to which the roseate spoonbill belongs (2) (3). It is long-legged, long-necked (2) and has a bald head that is pale green in appearance, with a white neck, breast and back (2) (3) (5). The rest of the plumage is mostly various shades of pink, with dark reddish-pink wing and upper tail feathers (2) (3) (5). There is a yellow patch near the bend of the wing, and the tail is orange (3) (5). The roseate spoonbill’s bill is about 15 to 18 centimetres long and is grey, while the legs are reddish-pink (3).

Male and female roseate spoonbills are similar in appearance and colour, although males are slightly larger (2) (3). Juvenile roseate spoonbills are mostly white, with dusky-pink wing tips which develop and darken as they mature (2) (3) (4) (5). They have fully feathered heads and pale yellowish-pink bills (3) (5). Full adult plumage is thought to develop after four moults, which takes about three years (3).

The roseate spoonbill is known to breed in southern USA in Florida, Louisiana and Texas, along both coasts of Central America, and south as far as central Argentina (3) (4). It is found on most islands in the Caribbean Sea, with the exception of the Lesser Antilles, where it is rare (3) (4). This is thought to indicate that the South American populations are distinct from the remaining populations in the USA and Central America (3).                                                                                            

The roseate spoonbill’s post-breeding dispersal range can include Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi (4). In the past the species has been seen as far north as Illinois (5).

The roseate spoonbill is known to nest in a wide variety of marine, brackish and freshwater habitats (3) (4). It requires shallow water in which it can feed using its long bill (3) (5).

The roseate spoonbill is a sociable bird, and is known to feed, roost and fly in formation with others of its kind (2) (3). It nests singly or in pairs, almost always in trees overhanging water, sometimes on small islands (2) (3). The nest is usually built by the female with material collected by the male (2) (5). The male roseate spoonbill becomes aggressive and territorial during the breeding season, defending its area against intruders (3) (5). Copulation takes place in the nest, and the female lays a clutch of between one and five eggs (3) (5). Eggs are incubated for about 24 days by both the male and female (2) (5). Hatchlings are fat with salmon-pink skin covered in sparse white down (5). They are fed by partial regurgitation, and may leave the nest after two to three weeks to form groups with other hatchlings, but will return to the adults to be fed (2). Roseate spoonbill fledglings leave the nest for good after 35 to 42 days, and perfect their flight after 49 to 56 days (5). They are thought to start breeding after three years, once full plumage has been developed, although breeding as early as two years old has been recorded (3) (5). The roseate spoonbill is seasonally monogamous, but is not known to keep the same breeding partner year after year (5). This species is thought to have a lifespan of between eight and ten years (5). The oldest known roseate spoonbill reached 16 years of age (2).

The roseate spoonbill feeds in groups, in both fresh and marine shallow waters(3) (4) (5). It feeds by walking slowly through the water, swinging its distinctive spoon-shaped bill from side to side (3). The bill has sensitive nerve endings, allowing it to detect when it comes into contact with prey and snap shut (3) (5). This species is known to shake and beat prey against hard surfaces to break shells and facilitate swallowing and digestion if necessary (3). The roseate spoonbill generally feeds on a range of aquatic animals including small fish, crustaceans and insects (3).

The roseate spoonbill will sleep standing, usually on one leg, with its head buried beneath back and shoulder feathers. The female is also able to rest when lying down during incubation. It is generally a silent bird, although it is known to make calls during breeding displays and when flying (3).

The most devastating threat to the roseate spoonbill has historically been hunting by man (3). Population numbers dropped dramatically between 1850 and 1890 as a result of hunters selling the feathers for use in fans and hat-making, as well as hunting for meat (3) (5). This species has also suffered from disturbance at breeding colonies shared with heavily hunted egrets (3).

Development of coastal habitats, climate change and polluted waters all currently threaten the habitat of the roseate spoonbill (4) (5).

The roseate spoonbill is designated as a Species of Special Concern in both Florida and Louisiana (3).

Most known breeding sites within Florida occur within federally owned national parks, wildlife refuges and National Audubon Society sanctuaries, which started protecting the roseate spoonbill in 1902 (4) (5). The taking of roseate spoonbills, their eggs and their nests is prohibited by the US Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (4).

Find out more about the roseate spoonbill:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2013)
  2. MobileReference (2008) The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of North American Birds: An Essential Guide to Common Birds of North America. MobileReference, Boston
  3. Dumas, J.V. (2000) Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja). In: Poole, A. (Ed)The Birds of North America Online Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
  4. Field Guide to the Rare Animals of Florida: Florida Natural Areas Inventory 2001 - Roseate spoonbill (December, 2013)
  5. Illinois Natural History Survey: Prairie Research Institute - Roseate spoonbill (December, 2013)