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Environment

Climate Change Inspires Roseate Spoonbills to Relocate

Roseate Spoonbill
Susan Perry/Audubon Photography
Roseate Spoonbill

While Roseate Spoonbills, a tropical and subtropical shore bird, traditionally call Southwest Florida home, they are nesting—and flying—much further north now.

The Roseate Spoonbill is a beautiful pink bird that, at a distance, can sometimes be mistaken for a flamingo. While spoonbills traditionally call Southwest Florida home, they’ve never been known to leave the tropical and subtropical climate zone north and south of the Equator. So why are they nesting as far north as Arkansas and Georgia—and wandering even further north in Minnesota and Maine—and Québec?

The Roseate Spoonbill shorebird is a local indicator species—a canary in the coal mine. If the Spoonbill is not doing well, that tells us there is a problem in the ecosystem. If the Spoonbill is recovering, it indicates that water management restoration efforts in the Everglades are working.

Hunted nearly to extinction, the species has seen a comeback. Thirty years ago, 90% of the state’s spoonbills nested in Florida Bay. Today, it’s less than 10% and those numbers continue to fall.

Jerry Lorenz is state director of research for Audubon Florida. He says in the early 1980s water management and infrastructure practices impacted Florida Bay negatively.

"They started channeling the water away from its natural course, and that made it more salty and did some other things as well," Lorenz tells WGCU. "At that point in time, the number of spoonbills began to go down."

Despite slow and slight improvements to water management, the number of Spoonbills is still in decline. The reason? Lorenz says, climate change is impacting the small fish the spoonbills rely on for food.

"Beginning in 2010, sea level rise has prevented that marsh from drying out, so there’s no concentration of those little fish anymore," he said.

So the Spoonbills have a bit of a double whammy: The bay isn’t as healthy as it once was and the food the Spoonbills rely on is no longer present due to sea level rise.

Yet South coastal Florida’s loss is rapidly becoming inland Florida—and the rest of North America's—gain. Spoonbills are nesting now in Georgia, South Carolina, and Arkansas.

"And we’ve had spoonbills sighted in Maine, and Québec, and just north of the Twin Cities in Minnesota," Lorenz notes.

Imagine a spoonbill hanging out in Lewiston, Maine.

"It is both a horrible story in that we’ve destroyed our coastal habitats and these birds have to go someplace else, but it also shows that these birds are resilient—Unlike us humans," said Lorenz. "I live in the Keys. Sea level rise is coming. They had the sense to get out of the way and move further inland. It’s both a good and a bad story. It’s good because spoonbills can adapt, but it’s not so good for us who live on the coast, unfortunately."

So while these traditionally brackish water, coastal, tropical loving birds find more homes inland, far away from salt and seawater--Should humans follow suit? Lorenz laments if he were looking to move to the Keys today, he likely wouldn’t purchase a home, but rather, would rent.