Sensitive spooning

Eleven years into volunteering at the zoo, I’ve noticed that I go through favorite-critter phases, with a “best thing at the zoo right now” orientation. Because the South American aviary on the Tropics trail was a new addition last fall, with its waterfall and its chorus of chirping, and because that leafy green trail is such a refuge in winter, that’s my “best thing” this season. And my favorite bird in that aviary is the roseate spoonbill, which the Audubon Society accurately describes as “gorgeous at a distance and bizarre up close.”

roseate spoonbill posing

roseate spoonbill close-up

Standing about 30 inches, the spoonbill is related to a flamingo and looks like one, too — until you notice the bill. In this aviary, that’s not always easy to do, because our two spoonbills — like their other on-exhibit relatives, the scarlet ibis — like to perch in the treetops, beak tucked under wing. But first thing in the morning, one spoonbill likes to pace the lower level, brushing the ground with that amazing implement on his face. (On the day I took all these photos, zookeeper Ben told me this one is the male and has a slight wing injury from some mysterious phase of his pre-Minnesota life. The roosting female would be a bit smaller-bodied, and smaller-billed.)

spoonbill scavengingThis big, odd, beautiful shore bird was behaving much as he would in the wild, where spoonbills sweep their heads from side to side in search of tasty morsels, especially in shallow water. The spoon-shaped bill is a sensitive instrument full of nerve endings, and when its owner scoops up a mouthful of water, that bill has the advantages of a sieve; it opens slightly, the water leaks out the sides and the tasty bits of seafood get swallowed, along with the occasional piece of plant life.

Minnesota Zoo roseate spoonbill crouching

They’re in our South American exhibit for a reason, but roseate spoonbills can also be found along U.S. shores in Florida, Louisiana and Texas. In our zoo space, they coexist with several smaller species besides the ibis. My second-favorite bird species in this aviary, the black-necked stilts, were keeping anxiously clear of the much larger Mr. Spoonbill, who strode purposefully across every inch of the exhibit in the 20 minutes I spent hovering with my camera. Eventually he fluttered up to join his mate in the treetops, and I craned my neck for one last look before moving along.

spoonbill and stilt