The Royal Spoonbill (Platalea regia) is a large white waterbird, averaging 78cm in height, with black, spoon-shaped bill, face, legs and feet. When breeding, it has a distinctive back of head crest, which can be up to 20cm long in male birds (usually shorter in females). The bird erects the crest during mating displays to reveal bright pink skin underneath. Breeding adults also have a creamy-yellow wash across the lower neck and upper breast and a strip of bright pink skin along the edge of the underwings, which is obvious when the bird opens its wings. The face is black with a yellow patch above the eye and a red patch in the middle of the forehead, in front of the crest of feathers. Females are slightly smaller with shorter legs and bill. Out of breeding season, the crests are smaller, the underwing is not bright pink and the plumage is less brilliant, often appearing 'dirty'. Young birds are similar to non-breeding adults without a crest or coloured face patches, and are slightly smaller with a shorter, smoother bill.
Platalea regina is found in shallow freshwater and saltwater wetlands, intertidal mud flats and wet grasslands. In arid zones, both permanent and temporary inland waters are used when available. The Royal Spoonbill will also use artificial wetlands such as sewage lagoons, salt flats, dams and reservoirs.
The Royal Spoonbill is most often seen wading in shallow waters, sweeping its submerged bill back and forth in a wide arc to find food. It feeds mainly on fish in freshwater, and on shrimps in tidal flats, it will eat other crustaceans and aquatic insects. The structure of its bill limits it to feeding in water that is less than 40cm deep over sand, mud or clay, where it can sweep the water with its bill. It uses several methods to catch food: slow sweeping from side to side with an open bill, rapid sweeping while walking fast or even running through the water, as well as dragging, probing or grabbing. The bill has many vibration detectors, called papille, on the inside of the spoon, which means the bird can feel for prey items even in murky water and can feed by day or night. Once food is caught, it lifts its bill up and lets the items slide down its throat. It will bash shrimps against hard objects to remove their shells.
The Royal Spoonbill forms monogamous pairs for the duration of the breeding season and nest in colonies alongside many other waterbirds. The birds build a solid bowl-shaped nest of sticks and twigs lined with leaves and water plants, which is usually in the crown of a tree over water or among high reeds and rushes. They may use nest sites year after year. Both sexes incubate the eggs and feed the young. When threatened at the nest, the adult birds raise all their feathers to appear much larger and crouch down low over the nest. The young are fed by both parents for several weeks after fledging and young birds will forage alongside their parents for some time before the family group disperses.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from the 'Victoria Village Voice' a quarterly newsletter produced by residents of Renaissance Victoria Point and issued on behalf of the Residents' Association.