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Spoonful of Sunset

January 12, 2010

I don’t like carrots. I hear they’re good for you. Good vision and all of that. Apparently our bodies convert carotenes into Vitamin A which is essential for our eyes to create the light-absorbing molecule retinal. Regardless of my disdain for the orange-colored root I have near X-ray vision.

Carotenes and vision play an important role with Florida’s most colorful bird as well. The Roseate Spoonbill (Ajaia ajaja) is the most conspicuous and theoretically easiest bird to identify in Florida and most people mistake it for a flamingo. Both species develop spectacularly vivid plumage through the bioaccumulation of carotenes – photosynthetic pigments which originate in kelp, among other sources. Shrimp feed on the kelp, spoonbills and flamingos feed on the shrimp and as the birds molt and trade out new plumage, new carotenoid-tinted feathers grow in with varying shades of pink. The better the bird’s diet, the more pronounced the color and more likely the bird will attract a quality mate.

It’s not tough to spot flamingos in Florida. They’re mounted on a thin post, have pinwheel rotating wings and roost wherever they are jammed into a lawn. Real American Flamingos (Phoenicopterus rubber) are only spotted a handful of times each year and mostly in the southernmost tip of the peninsula, appropriately around the town of Flamingo.

During the plumage trade of the early 20th century both pink birds were nearly extirpated by hunters but only the spoonbills have been able to rebound. They are typically found foraging along the briny coastline where they filter feed shrimp and other invertebrates by sweeping their flattened spoon-shaped bill back and forth through the water, plucking out tasty morsels. Juvenile spoonbills have a faint pink pigmentation until their diet kicks in.

I didn’t need stellar vision to spot these spoonbills at the Harns Marsh in Lehigh Acres, FL. Clearly these birds have eaten a fair share of shrimp. As we head towards nesting season, the brilliant plumage will suggest excellent health to potential mates. So go eat your carrots. And as for my X-ray vision? I can only see through feathers. Trust me.

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