Code Pink

The decline of the roseate spoonbill, an Everglades icon, could signal an ecosystem collapse.

By Amy Leinbach Marquis

Few things in nature compare to the bright-pink glow of a roseate spoonbill against a Florida sky. It brought out the poet in famed birders like Robert Porter Allen, who likened the species to “orchids taking wing,” and Roger Tory Peterson, who declared spoonbills “one of the most breathtaking of the world’s weird birds.”

But a spoonbill’s beauty is more than feather-deep. Once you get to know them, says Jerry Lorenz, lead researcher in the Audubon of Florida Tavernier Science Center, it’s hard not to feel connected. Every time a spoonbill flies overhead, it seems to turn and look right at you—like a nod from an old friend.

When spoonbills aren’t busy guarding their chicks, nestled atop mangrove islands, they’re wading patiently in the shallows, nipping at fish and snails with a long, rounded beak that gives them their name. In breeding season, their pink plumage blushes to shades of orange, earning the folk name “flamebird.” But that fire is fading: Spoonbills are fleeing Florida Bay in droves. And that’s not a good sign for Everglades National Park.

Florida Bay, a shallow body of water on the southernmost end of the park, was bustling with spoonbills until the late-1800s when the species was extirpated from the area after being hunted for plumage, a popular accessory in women’s hats. In 1935, the Audubon Society launched a successful campaign to bring them back. By the mid-1970s, 1,250 nests were documented in Florida Bay.

But spoonbills lost much of their foraging habitat with Florida’s development boom. Builders drained wetlands, set up flood control systems, and rerouted freshwater sources to thirsty new residents throughout the state; by the 1980s, two-thirds of Florida Bay’s freshwater source had been diverted to these new developments. It’s thought that the increased salinity levels changed the habitat so drastically that spoonbills could no longer find enough food for their young.

So the spoonbill population plummeted again, and in the late 1980s, Audubon estimated that just 600 nests remained in Florida Bay. In the 1990s that number fell to about 450, and this year, the count dropped to 260.

To make matters worse, many people who use the bay are unaware of their impact on its resources. Constant motorboat traffic generates significant noise that scares adult birds from their nests and leaves chicks vulnerable to predators.

“Crows hear the boats coming by, and it’s like a dinner bell signaling them to swoop in for the kill,” says Rob Clift, NPCA’s senior marine outreach coordinator. “We lost almost every chick to this problem one year.” (NPCA is launching a boater-education program this summer to help change that, posting signs that encourage better boating etiquette in critical spoonbill nesting habitat.)

For now, the devastation is isolated to Florida Bay. In fact, statewide, the roseate spoonbill population is actually growing as birds from Florida Bay move north to Tampa and other locations, where nesting conditions are more stable despite neighboring power plants and bustling suburbs.

Such adaptations are a good sign for the species, but a bad sign for the Everglades. Spoonbills, which Lorenz calls the “pink
canary in the coalmine,” rely on the same food and resources as bald eagles, great white herons, crocodiles, West Indian manatees, and game fish, among others. If spoonbills are struggling, the entire ecosystem is too.

“I think we’re on the precipice of another catastrophic environmental turnover like we saw in the early nineties,” Lorenz says. “The bay didn’t die—biologically it was quite alive—it just turned into something it had never been and wasn’t supposed to be. Instead of sea grasses and wildlife, it was dominated by micro-algae. All the fish left, all the birds left. And that’s right where we are again.”

In 2000, Congress passed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan—the largest ecosystem restoration program ever undertaken in the world. It aims to fix the Everglades by restoring the flow of freshwater—although doing so is a complicated process. With the canal system currently in place, putting water back into Florida Bay on the cheap could flood farms and neighborhoods.

“The Everglades is seen as a test for how we can undo damage done by past generations,” says Sara Fain, NPCA’s Everglades Restoration program manager. “We need a sustained commitment from our state and federal governments to ensure restoration of the habitat that is critical to protecting the spoonbills.” The species could make a comeback in as few as five years if legislators choose to properly fund the restoration. If not, the park might very well lose an icon species.

“It breaks my heart to go into a spoonbill colony and see all these dead chicks falling out of nests,” Lorenz says. “But there’s not a day that I go out there and don’t see something beautiful that stops me in my tracks. Sometimes it’s subtle—like walking around a bend to see thirty royal terns sitting in a tree, which is just stunning. Those moments are a testament to how resilient the bay is.”

Amy Leinbach Marquis is assistant editor at National Parks magazine.

This article appears in the Summer 2008 issue.

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