Any of six species (family Threskiornithidae) of long-necked, long-legged wading birds, inhabitants of Old and New World estuaries, saltwater bayous, and lakes. They are 24–32 in. (60–80 cm) long and have a short tail and a long, straight bill that is spatulate at the tip. Most species are white, sometimes rose-tinged; the roseate spoonbill (Ajaia ajaja) of North and South America is deep pink and strikingly beautiful. With a side-to-side motion of the bill, they sweep mud and shallow water for fishes and crustaceans. They fly with neck and legs extended and wings flapping steadily. Breeding colonies build stick nests in low bushes and trees. Some species, including the black-billed spoonbill, are endangered. Seealso ibis.
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All have large, flat, spatulate bills and feed by wading through shallow water, sweeping the partly-opened bill from side to side. The moment any small aquatic creature touches the inside of the bill—an insect, crustacean, or tiny fish—it is snapped shut. Spoonbills generally prefer fresh water to salt but are found in both environments. They need to feed many hours each day.
Spoonbills are monogamous, but, so far as is known, only for one season at a time. Most species nest in trees or reed-beds, often with ibises or herons. The male gathers nesting material—mostly sticks and reeds, sometimes taken from an old nest—the female weaves it into a large, shallow bowl or platform which varies in its shape and structural integrity according to species.
The female lays a clutch of about 3 smooth, oval, white eggs and both parents incubate; chicks hatch one at a time rather than all together. The newly-hatched young are blind and cannot care for themselves immediately; both parents feed them by partial regurgitation. Chicks' bills are short and straight, and only gain the characteristic spoonbill shape as they mature. Their feeding continues for a few weeks longer after the family leaves the nest. The primary cause of brood failure appears not to be predation but starvation.
The spoonbill family is one of the families in the order Ciconiiformes.