'Cajun Flamingo' comes roaring back from brink of extinction

Published: Oct. 31, 2013 at 11:19 PM CDT|Updated: Dec. 27, 2013 at 9:07 PM CST
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A Roseate Spoonbill comes in for a landing in this December 2012 file photo from Avery Island,...
A Roseate Spoonbill comes in for a landing in this December 2012 file photo from Avery Island, La. (John Snell)

METAIRIE, La. - Motorists driving along canals in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes might encounter a strange creature seldom seen in these parts.

A bird as bizarre as it is beautiful, Roseate Spoonbills are expanding their range.

"They have this outrageously-shaped beak, which is unique in North America," said Dr. Peter Yaukey, a UNO geography professor specializing in bird populations.

Often mistaken for flamingos, spoonbills stand 3 feet tall with a 4-foot wingspan of pink.

"New Orleans is really a very bird-rich city," said Yaukey, who has tracked a dramatic expansion of their range.

In 20 years' time, the birds have spread from an isolated group in extreme Southwestern Louisiana. Now, Yaukey said he regularly spots them in canals, especially along West Metairie and Airline Drive in East Jefferson.

These spottings are especially exciting for bird enthusiasts, given that man nearly hunted the Roseate Spoonbill into extinction a century ago.

"They would take the entire wing and fashion it into a ladies fan," said Carolyn Atherton, a bird curator at the Audubon Zoo.

In the Victorian Era of the late 1800s, outlandish, feathered hats were all the rage, and hunters capitalized on the market.

"An ounce of these feathers was worth more than an ounce of gold at the time," Atherton said.

Egrets and Herons nearly vanished, too.

"To get those plumes, you had to hunt the birds at the height of breeding season," Yaukey said.  

That meant as the adults were killed, the young were left unattended in the nest.

"You basically would wipe out not just the one bird you shot, but the entire family," Yaukey explained.
It took an act of Congress - the 1918 Migratory Bird Act - to stop the trade, with stiff penalties for harming the birds.

Roseate Spoonbills, and other wading birds, are now listed officially as being of "least concern" when it comes to threats to the various species.  

However, Yaukey said they face long-term challenges, chiefly the loss of habitat along Louisiana's coast.

While Spoonbills in the southwestern part of the state often nest high in trees, many of the birds along the islands in the southeast prefer to build their nests on small islands barely above sea level.

As the coast turns into open water, "that is a threat to Roseate Spoonbills and all other birds in that group," Yaukey said.

For the moment, the population has come roaring back.

"I've been doing this for decades and I get tickled when I see one," he said.