The Royal Spoonbill Plataleia regia is also called the Black-billed Spoonbill. Like the herons and egrets, spoonbilols are specialist feeders in shallow water. But unlike these birds, they cannot live away from water, for their feeding mechanism relies entirely upon it.
Spoonbills have a long flat bill (as can be seen in the bird on the left). When viewed from above (the photo on the right), the bill can be seen to be very spoon-shaped, with a very broad tip leading to the mouth via a much thinner (‘handle’) section. The spoon is filled with sensitive pads, or papillae, which are used to detect living organisms that enter the beak. This way the spoonbill doesn’t have to do what the herons, egrets and ibises do: use eyesight to detect prey. They can feed in very muddy water and still find their prey.
Royal spoonbills feed on pond creatures that are large enough to easily detect, mainly small fish, but often large water insects as well. As soon as a living food item is detected inside the spoonbill’s mouth, it upends its bill so the food slides down its throat, leaving the water behind. This means that the spoonbill has options limited to water below 40cm in depth. Despite this, royal spoonbills are very efficient feeders. They usually walk slowly forwards in the water, swinging their head from side to side and waiting for their often fully submerged beaks to connect with something. Sometimes, however, they actually run forwards while swinging their beaks about. They behave a little like the vacuum cleaners of the wetlands.
Royal spoonbills are pristine white birds. They have black legs, faces and bills. Breeding adults have a small red mark on the tops of their heads, together with bright yellow marks above their eyes. They also have long white plumes forming a crest or mane at the back of their heads. When not breeding they lose the mane. Juvenile birds have black at the tips of their flight feathers and no colour other than black in their heads. Their bills are often markedly shorter than those of the adults. Like ibis, royal spoonbills get on well both with their own species and other waterbirds. They roost and nest in trees and prefer to make their platform nests in trees overhanging water, so they too rely on flooding for significant breeding events to occur. Like white ibis, they will settle for reeds and cumbungi to nest in if they have to.
Royal spoonbills are also far more gregarious than yellow-billed spoonbills and can often be found together in small to large flocks. Royal spoonbills turned up after the floods of 2012 when the water had become shallow enough for them to feed. Their numbers increased as more of their ideal depth of water was exposed, and left when the water became too shallow.